By BRUCE DENNILL
Joanna MacGregor / Johannesburg Musical Society / Linder Auditorium, Parktown, Johannesburg
As part of the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival, this concert provided a platform for virtuoso pianist Joanna MacGregor – Head of Piano at the Royal Academy of Music and Professor at the University of London – to choose a programme of pieces allied to the folk music theme of the festival as a whole.
As MacGregor made clear throughout the performance, without ever being condescending, was that she has endless (almost not an exaggeration) knowledge about composition across history and regions, which made the choice of composers and their works she played for this event both fascinating and challenging.
The latter applied particularly to the opening selection of pieces from Hungaro-Austrian musician Gyorgy Ligeti, probably the most avante garde of the whole performance which, while not being particularly easy to listen to, gave an early idea of MacGregor’s fluid, confident style, as well as her incredible dexterity on the keyboard of the Linder’s Steinway.
Both before and after this first section, and following each set of grouped compositions thereafter, MacGregor stood and shared her passion for the next set of pieces with the audience, adding further insight to the excellent programme notes and steadily charming everyone in the room with her enthusiasm and easy, witty delivery of her perspective s on the music.
Erik Satie’s Three Gnossiennes were more elegant, though there were some deviations from what listeners might have expected – ironically to be expected from the eccentric Satie, before the lyrical, poetic Fur Alina and Fur Anna Maria by Estonian composer Arvo Part provided what was likely the popular highlight for the evening.
MacGregor insisted that the first half of the programme was all about stripped-down, “pure” pieces, but the two Stravinsky offerings that closed the first half – Tango and Sonata For Piano (1924) were both rather dense and cluttered,
The second half was more consistent in tone – Six Mazurkas by Chopin and Six Tangos (arranged for solo piano by MacGregor) by The Argentinean Astor Piazzolla – though still rich in variation when it came to pace and feeling, with some of the latter expressed via the rhythmic stamping required by the tango music.
This concert, ultimately, was a showcase of two things MacGregor seemed to be able to offer without any fuss whatsoever: phenomenal technique and flair when seated at the piano, and an ability to communicate her passion and academic expertise without alienating a group of people who, with perhaps a few exceptions, will never come close to matching either.
Enjoyable and thought-provoking.