Typecasting in any form does not fit into the picture of Denis Goldberg, one of a small, elite group of legendary South African struggle heroes. Apart from being a rare humanitarian and mensch, he is as active as ever at the age of 83. He was the main focus at the 2016 Stellenbosch International Chamber Music Festival, where Moments in a Life, a newly commissioned work written by Matthijs van Dijk, with Goldberg reading his own text, had an emotionally stirring world premiere in the Endler.  This is as unique as it is rare. The reception of a new work is always filled with expectation, but here the sounds were a resourceful – a seamlessly auditive as well as illustrative addition to an autobiographical text. Everything about the work’s concept reflected a perfect equilibrium between words and music, with the eight musicians, an overtone singer and the narrator perfectly inspired and synchronized with musical insight and flair by the conductor Xandi van Dijk. PAUL BOEKKOOI looks back at a truly memorable day in the SICMF’s 13-year history.

Already early on day six of this year’s festival, Denis Goldberg made his appearance. A busy day awaited him, with a crew ready to film all the events where he was involved in: a rehearsal for the evening performance of Moments in a Life, an interview with Gareth Lubbe who also temporary put his viola aside to be an overtone singer during the rehearsal and performance. This was followed, after a break, with a conversation between Goldberg and the well-known journalist Mark Gevisser in the Jannasch-hall before the evening’s premiere performance commenced.

During the interview between Goldberg and Lubbe, the former basically responded to a single question that encapsulated his visionary life which primarily was lived to strive for, as well as to realise, his main aim: To free South Africa from every possible form of domination and oppression. Although he contextualised the past as well as his own history, he is driven by an unstoppable urge to only look forward. In that sense Goldberg has always been a Renaissance man, even if he might at times have been a bit of a hothead to achieve his vision and ideals.

Goldberg reflected on the role of the Stellenbosch University in a historical sense and gave his own, well formulated perspective on the various issues around language. He also mentioned the particular fact that the university is showing itself to be resourceful and on the right course by supporting and hosting the annual SICMF which is primarily a teaching facility for young musicians from all over the world. Apart from this, dozens of high profile and famous international music practitioners and -teachers are willing to share their collective talents in Stellenbosch and to prepare the youngsters so that a new generation of thoroughly trained young SA musicians can be developed.

In the interview with Gevisser, Goldberg especially shared his thoughts on the importance of music and how it shaped his life. He mentioned that his own obsessive love for music was not interrupted during his 22 years in prison which commenced on 12 June 1964. “Me and my inmates were allowed to purchase a long playing record every second month and during than time we had a collection of more than 800 – mainly classical, but also jazz and later African music, including penny-whistle recordings. A record player and amplifier was kept in a warden’s office and we listened to those recordings on Sunday evenings,” Goldberg said.

Against all odds, these activities only strengthened his love of music and his quest for freedom – not necessarily his own, but that of South Africa and its people. One of the most beloved projects that keeps Goldberg busy on a daily basis, is the Kronendal Music Academy of Hout Bay where he has settled. From children to young adults from diverse backgrounds can study music here with the aim of performing together in different groups or as a unity. They were ready to do exactly this in the foyer of the Endler where they raised more than just a curtain with their soft-jazz and other repertoire. All this was a kind of never-to-be-forgotten prelude to the event everyone was waiting for:

The world premiere of Moments in a Life.

This was, in the core sense of the word, a momentous occasion as well as strongly palpable on an emotional level. Goldberg, in a festive mood with a brightly coloured and wide scarf around his neck and shoulders, received wide applause when he walked on stage. A frisson was hanging in the air. When the musicians and finally the conductor followed him, the spell was only broken some 35 minutes later after an extensive period of applause lasting as long as the (for once) totally well-deserved standing ovation.

What exactly made those 35 minutes so special? This work is in no way conventional. It is surprisingly diverse, and yet so compact in style. Matthijs van Dijk wrote not a single superfluous note, while Goldberg, reading his text selected from his autobiography, A life for freedom: The mission to end racism in South Africa, hand-picked a relevant and wise selection from it to secure a narrative flow and in so doing had the audience hanging on his lips. The fact that he honoured Chris Hani, alas one of the often forgotten struggle icons, was especially lauded by this listener. Goldberg’s words could be followed well in row P from where I listened. Some people in other parts of the hall were perhaps less fortunate…

Van Dijk’s score is a template of economic writing. Less is more, as long as it illustrates or supports, in musical terms, what the text demands. This is exactly what is happening. Very early on the youthfulness of the young Goldberg as a boy, was suggested with elan. In the section where Bram Fischer is mentioned, the sounds were more poignant.

The orchestration is done very delicately, with only rare moments of drama which made their mark effectively through the hands of percussionist Rob Knopper. However, the dominant impression this score leaves the listener with, is one of lyricism. The choice of instruments in this ensemble, other than the conventional strings, is stimulating enough to evoke a wide palette of colouristic potential. The clarinet, in a special way idiomatically put to task by Ferdinand Steiner, sounded brilliant at times and often also dark and slightly threatening. The most unusual aspect of Moments in a Life, is the inclusion of an overtone singer which was handled so effectively that it suggested and truly had a strangely distant effect, was achieved with some rare authenticity by the violist Gareth Lubbe.

Xandi van Dijk conducted the work with full attention to detail and a high level of concentration. It made the performance as a whole impressive due to his powerful grip on the material and its expressive potential.

Moments in a Life is far-reaching in opening new possibilities regarding stylistic diversity. It is going to be difficult to experience anyone else doing this narrative apart than Denis Goldberg himself. But as an example how historic events can be treated within the realm of classical music, this piece could be a blueprint of what can be achieved by young, inventive and forward looking composers.


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