Treat for Classical Music Lovers

Nairobi Orchestra. PHOTO | COURTESY
Nairobi Orchestra. PHOTO | COURTESY 

The Nairobi Orchestra will hold its first concert of 2018 at the Kenya National Theatre from March 16 to 17.

The concert programme consists of three classical compositions including “Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini” that is being performed for the very first time by an ensemble in Nairobi.

“This is a fantastic programme of music, but challenging,” says conductor James Laight.

“The orchestra is having to work extra long days to prepare for the performance,” he adds.

The work by Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff that premiered in 1934 was inspired by 19th century composer Niccolo Paganini’s “Caprice No. 24” for violin. Rachmaninoff’s arrangement brings a full orchestra into the mix with 24 variations on the Caprice.


It begins with a short introduction followed by the presentation of the theme with violins accompanied by piano. The most popular section is the 18th Variation that has been widely used in films like “Ronin”, “Groundhog Day”, and “The Good Wife.”

Flutes and oboes

This year marks the centenary of the death of Claude Debussy and the Nairobi Orchestra will pay homage to the French composer by playing one of his most popular pieces. “Petite Suite” was written as a piece for piano, and then transcribed as an orchestral arrangement by his colleague Henri Busser.

The suite composed in 1888-89 has four individual movements (sections of a classical composition) lasting about 13 minutes. “En Bateau” opens with a melody in flute with muted accompaniment in the strings before the development of violins and clarinets. The second movement “Cortege” begins with flutes and oboes, with rhythm from strings and harp while the “Menuet” introduces bassoons with string accompaniment. The final movement “Ballet” is an energetic rhythmic dance, with a graceful waltz in the central section.

“Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini” is a work for solo piano and orchestra. The performance of this piece features guest pianist Cordelia Williams from the UK. Williams was Piano Winner of the BBC Young Musician 2006 and has travelled and performed through France, Italy, Norway, Switzerland, Austria, Thailand, China, US, Mexico and Kenya.

She performed at a piano recital with the Nairobi Music Society at the Kenton College in June 2012 playing works by Schubert, Ravel, Beethoven ad Liszt. Earlier in the same year she also performed a recital at the Muthaiga Club.

Williams has performed concertos with the English Chamber Orchestra, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

She is drawn especially to the music of the late Classical and early Romantic periods. Her debut CD featuring Schubert’s complete impromptus, was released in July 2013. The final piece of music on the concert programme is Pytor Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony No. 5” which is in four movements.

“The committee liked the idea of performing a Tchaikovsky symphony so we asked my fellow conductor Levi Wataka to decide on one and he picked the 5th Symphony,” says Laight.

The piece was written in 1888 as the composer battled with depression and other personal crises. It was met with a muted reaction and even the composer himself said after its second performance, “I have come to the conclusion that it’s a failure.”

Harp and percussion

However the symphony only grew in popularity after the death of Tchaikovsky in 1893 and has stood the test of time as a popular concert piece since then. The musical theme of ‘ultimate victory through strife’ made this work very popular during the World War II with many recordings during that period.

Laight will conduct the Debussy and the Rachmaninoff works in the first half of the concert while the Tchaikovsky piece will be conducted by Levi Wataka. The instrumentation for the concert is a typical arrangement from the Romantic era of classical music, including piccolo, cor anglais, harp and percussion. There will also be four double basses playing at the concert, according to Laight.

The Nairobi Orchestra returns to the Kenya National Theatre for their first concert at the venue in almost a decade.

“Due to the refurbishment of the theatre, the orchestra is keen to try the venue to perhaps broaden our audience,” explains Laight.

There will be two performances on March 17 at 7pm and 18 March at 3pm and advance tickets for the concerts are available on