One look at James Tennant’s festive multi-coloured waistcoat and we knew this concert was going to be a celebration. It certainly was – a configuration of the stars would not be an exaggeration: James Tennant, the internationally known concert soloist, conductor and teacher conducted a performance of the Schumann Cello Concerto in A minor played by Matthias Balzat.
What made the event so special is that James has been Matthias’ cello teacher since he was eleven. The youngest child of seven – a musical prodigy in a musical family – he began learning the cello from Sally-Anne Brown at the age of three. He was accepted into the Music Performance Soloist Specialization Course at the University of Waikato at the age of 14, when most youngsters of that age are in their second year of high school. James continued to be Mathias’ cello teacher and mentor during his university years. Now 18, Matthias is a graduate at an age when most students are just enrolling for tertiary study! As Matthias is now ready to move overseas for the next stage in his career this concert marks a major milestone in his musical life.
The programme began on a high with the lively overture to The Italian Girl in Algiers. Just for fun Rossini turned the plot of Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio on its ear and now it’s the maiden who saves her lover from the pirates.
The Schumann Cello Concerto Op 129 in A minor followed. The three movements are played as one because Schumann hated applause between movements. Finished themes and fragments from the first movement reappear throughout and range from deeply meditative to agitated.There is also a showcase passage of double-stopping. This was an excellent work to display Matthias’ glorious rich tone and his impeccable technique. It was noted that the full house included quite a number of cellists who had come to listen, cheer, whistle and stamp their feet in appreciation of this amazing young talent. As did the rest of us.
With barely a break Matthias then played the Tchaikovsky Pezzo capriccio op 62 (little piece) written originally for Tchaikovsky’s friend Anatoly Brandukov in 1887. The contrasting themes – lyrical, melancholy, and energetic – were designed to test a variety of skills, namely tone quality, technical ability and control in the high range. This piece of Tchaikovsky wizardry is rarely heard, probably because it is so difficult but Matthias certainly mastered it. After sustained applause he played an unaccompanied encore, Caprice no. 7 by Piatti.
The major work was Dvorak Symphony No 6 in D major Op 60. This was written when Dvorak was at a formative stage in his career and the first two movements are very much influenced by Brahms, Beethoven and Schubert. It is very demanding work for every section of the orchestra, particularly the brass. The third movement was a foot-tapping furiant, a swirling Bohemian folk dance with forceful cross-rhythms and the fourth movement payed homage to the Brahms’ second symphony in an exuberant finish. People seated at the front were able to notice that James was so much in command of the repertoire that he rarely looked at the score.
There were two other special SMCO events marking the occasion. Tessa Petersen, Senior Lecturer in Violin from the School of Music at the University of Otago came up from Dunedin to be Concertmaster for this performance, and long-time player Diana Gash who now lives in Dunedin was welcomed back as leader of the second violins for this concert. She’ll be back again in August.