The 13th edition of the Stellenbosch International Chamber Music Festival has passed its halfway mark by the time you read this. What a fascinating journey it has already been and the best is still to come! Standing strong in that category is the world premiere of this year’s commissioned work, Moments in a Life. It is based on the life story of the struggle icon Denis Goldberg and composed by Matthijs van Dijk. Goldberg himself will be the narrator and the composer’s brother, Xandi, will conduct. This unusual boundary shifting composition can be heard tonight (Wednesday) at 20:00 in the Endler. PAUL BOEKKOOI reflects on other surprising works by Bowen, Babadjanian and Adams he experienced during Tuesday evening’s concert.
Exposure to lesser known music in live performances is perhaps the strongest calling card for music festivals around the globe. The daily routine of programming for the public at large to please the masses can for once be set aside and more idealistic purposes can and should be pursued. In the broadest sense your average concert public want to hear recognisable tunes, a performance that is visually and regarding technique preferably in the virtuoso class, as well as one where the sound range lies somewhere between big-boned and overwhelming. These elements working together usually result at the conclusion of the piece in a riotous vocal appreciation, be it shouting or whistling, and, let’s face it, usually accompanied by a standing ovation. This is hardly a healthy protocol – especially in cases where the results are far from uplifting.
At Tuesday’s Faculty Concert 5 a fiery enthusiasm reigned after the performances of all three highly contrasting works. Here the dominant reason for such a reaction was the surprising originality and the pure pulling power and enlightenment all three of them reflected on totally different levels. Expectations were not only fulfilled. They were overflowing like a dam after heavy rain. All three of them were written with relative ease it seems, but they also displayed a serious gravitas within the musical language, with John Adams the odd man out. His Chamber Symphony sounded like a runaway train whose driver is on steroids and also colour blind so that he can’t exactly know which message the signal poles next to track want to bring to his attention.
York Bowen’s Fantasia for four violas in E minor, Opus 41, No. 1 was the real surprise among the evening’s performed repertoire. Not only is the combination totally unique, but if other works were written for four violas, they might more be in the category of study- or ensemble pieces. They might also resemble exercises rather than inspired lyrical ideas interwoven with, at times, a nearly symphonic sounding structure. This Fantasia evokes something special: a masterful piece for top soloists. And it is exactly that element which the four performers – Gareth Lubbe, Juan-Miguel Hernandez, Xandi van Dijk and Tobias Breider – underlined in their playing. Bowen’s writing is so rich in sound architecture and -dynamics, that for once we could hear the impressive range of this instrument which until quite recently was often treated rather harshly, mainly through ignorance. Everything about this performance communicated the composer’s inspiration very clearly in the fully nuanced phrasing and the spellbinding passages where, individually or collectively, the players could show off their virtuosity. But most of all their burnished sound and deeply felt attention to Bowen’s own musical language left one with the impression that there’s far more power behind the notes than one could initially imagine.
Ilya Friedberg (piano), Alissa Margulis (violin) and Alexander Buzlov (‘cello) hereafter introduced the audience to the Armenian composer Arno Babadjanian’s Piano Trio in F sharp minor. Due to his ethnomusicological research into the soul of Armenian music, much of the characteristics of his compatriot Aram Khatchaturian’s music is also found in a number of his own compositions. Both of them studied with Russian composers, with Babadjanian rounding off his studies with Arensky, Ippolitov-Ivanov and Taneyev.
This trio’s sound world is not that far removed from those chamber works by the above mentioned composers, or for that matter, even Rachmaninov’s piano trios. However, the F sharp minor trio often reflects dark moods within passages one can truly describe as being dramatic, tragic and, in a way, also obsessive. The opening of the first movement is marked Largo. Violin and ‘cello play a weighty elegiac melody in tandem, with the latter instrument developing it in a deeply dramatic, sorrowful and moody way. As the movement develops and the tempo becomes an Allegro, marked espressivo, all three instruments take us on an extended, strong journey through the passionate soundscapes of Armenian folklore. The relentless, driven pulse within the music hardly becomes any calmer when the first movement’s Maestoso section is reached.
The Andante second movement opens with a rather complicated melody on the violin – meaning that it can hardly be whistled. It has a slightly eerie atmosphere before the violin is joined by the ‘cello, with the latter’s harmonies providing it with a deeper substance. From here onwards the movement develops into a deeply rooted drama before the music calms down to find an equilibrium in the subtlety of the final page. The Allegro Vivace-finale’s themes are strikingly developed through the voices of all three instruments. The movement has a heroic aura, but the work does not end before more Slavic suffering is suggested by the composer, though the ending was gloriously affirmative.
I’m sure that out of pure curiosity or perhaps very selfish self-interest (!) every audience member would have been anxious to know what every other one loved or hated about John Adams’ Chamber Symphony. This roller coaster ride of pure instrumental bravura, made even more complicated by the composer through the rhythmic complexity and the tempi he insisted on, seemingly had everyone’s adrenaline pumping and made one more alert towards both the intricacies and eccentricities by which a performance can either be successful or flop. No middle ground, neither a lukewarm approach towards Adams is possible.
I’ve got a confession to make. My first thoughts after the final chords of the three-movement work ended, was: Can it be healthy to play this? In the first movement, Mongrel Airs, the tempo and the 16-strong ensemble’s playing was both feverish and magnificent in a strangely hectic way. Kazem Abdullah conducted like an Olympic champion on a record breaking course, cueing like mad to keep the ensemble tight. He more than managed: he triumphed. The second movement, Aria with Walking Bass, brought us some respite, but it was impossible not to notice the resounding chorale on the trombone, later joined by the trumpet. The movement as a whole’s ostinato bass line was, in its own way, haunting. With Roadrunner the musical equivalent of a grand prix was once again at the starting block. The violinist Nicolas Dautricourt performed his cadenza-like solo from hell with aplomb. Apart from all this, Adam’s Chamber Symphony also infuses one with imaginary pictures while listening to it. What a sensational ride!