Do you believe in magic? The Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra’s latest concert formed part of a series devoted to the “fifth element” (ie the supernatural), with all four pieces on the programme having associations with magic or ghosts. Even if you don’t believe in wizards and phantoms, the orchestra and its principal conductor Gabriel Feltz ensured that there was plenty of musical magic to hear. The Belgrade Philharmonic must produce some alchemy of its own: its concerts regularly sell out as soon as they go on sale with standing room for 100 lucky people available on the day of the performance. The orchestra’s regular venue, the Kolarac Hall, is perhaps a little too small for a large orchestra but the acoustics are good. There are plans for a brand new hall for the orchestra but it will be several years before it is ready.

Gabriel Feltz conducts the Belgrade Philharmonic © Marko Djokovic | Belgrade Philharmonic
Gabriel Feltz conducts the Belgrade Philharmonic
© Marko Djokovic | Belgrade Philharmonic

A quick glance at the booklet of concerts for the year shows great imagination in the construction of programmes. Under Gabriel Feltz, the orchestra began with a spirited account of the ever popular Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas. This scherzo for orchestra closely follows the story of Goethe's poem. The alternation of calm, anxious anticipation and frenetic activity clearly lends themselves to musical treatment. Feltz brought out all the colours of Dukas’ imaginative orchestration. Pride of place here goes to the bassoons and contrabassoons which are given rare prominence, their players earning well-deserved acknowledgement at the end. Also, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is one of those few pieces in which the music itself can make the audience laugh and Feltz made the most of this.

The second piece marked a departure from tradition which I have not encountered before but which worked extremely well. Instead of another orchestral piece or a concerto we had chamber music: Beethoven’s Ghost Trio (the Piano Trio in D major Op.70 no. 1). The performers were the evening’s conductor, Gabriel Feltz (piano) and the orchestra’s usual leader, Tijana Milošević, and principal cellist Nemanja Stanković. I do not know whether these three regularly play chamber music together but there was an evident rapport between them and they blended well, with stylish playing making every note count. It is the second movement that gave rise to the trio’s nickname thanks to the eerie sounds Beethoven evokes and which are thought to be linked to his plans for an opera on Macbeth. The fame of the slow movement, though, should not detract from the other two movements; the first was in turn lyrical and intense, the finale exciting and joyful. Many members of the orchestra joined the standing members of the audience to support their colleagues who received a rousing reception.

Gabriel Feltz, Tijana Milosevic and Nemanja Stankovic © Marko Djokovic | Belgrade Philharmonic
Gabriel Feltz, Tijana Milosevic and Nemanja Stankovic
© Marko Djokovic | Belgrade Philharmonic

The second half started with a suite of four movements from John Williams’ music to the film Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I am not one of those who has fallen under the spell of JK Rowling’s creation but this performance may just encourage me to investigate further. The first movement of the suite was entitled Hedwig’s Theme, Hedwig being Harry Potter’s owl. This began with the magical sound of the celesta, surely one of the most prominent uses of the instrument since Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Sugar Plum FairyNimbus 2000 – a model of flying broomstick – reprised a number of themes that we had heard before in a different guise. The fourth movement was entitled Harry’s Wondrous World and was less subtle than the previous ones but rounded off the suite nicely with its swirling cheerful melodies somehow feeling comfortable and even nostalgic. The orchestra played with panache, revelling in the opportunities for solo display as they had in the Dukas. I think I will have to go and watch the film!

Finally we had the overture to Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, the story of the ghostly sea captain cursed to sail the seas for ever as a result of invoking the Devil. Although it makes use of several of the main themes from the opera the audience does not need to know about the characters or the plot as the overture works perfectly well as a free-standing tone poem – and, as today, can provide a rousing end to a concert. Feltz took the overture at a fair pace and conjured up a powerful impression of the stormy and dangerous sea. Throughout the concert the Belgrade Philharmonic showed that this is a first-rate orchestra – which may be obvious in Serbia but a pleasing revelation to those of us from further away.

****1