The starting blocks of the 2017 Stellenbosch International Chamber Music Festival are already well beyond us in this, the 14th edition of an annual event. It is here where music education, performance and listening are the core dynamics – keeping hundreds of us for a period of ten days fully engrossed in this, the most soul stirring of all art forms. PAUL BOEKKOOI, your resident blogger for 2017, wishes to be rather more of a communicator than a strict educator relating to the magic impact music can have in people’s lives. And where else on this continent can this in any better way be achieved and experienced than here, at the SICMF?
First of all, a confession is in place. As an individual experiencing between 120 and 140 concerts annually, one can easily become blasé – the “been there, done that” attitude. After hearing the Faculty Concert 2 on Sunday night with music by Bridge, Shostakovich, Piazzolla and Schoenfield, I felt like being on steroids, or, at least, I imagined how that could or should feel. At best of times music can have the effect of a drug, or perhaps that concept only lives in one’s imagination?
Aaron Copland, the 20th century composer, described in great detail that listeners to music have all but a non-active role to play. In his early post student years as a composer he wrote in the style of some of the most avant-garde colleagues of his generation. He was criticised for this – especially after returning to the USA where musical conservatism somehow prevailed. All this happened after Copland’s very positive stint with the legendary Nadia Boulanger in Paris who, by the way, had an impact on hundreds of her students, including Astor Piazzolla and our own Peter Klatzow. Among the many concepts Copland brought back with him from his exposure to her and Europe as a whole, was that listeners should develop their imaginative skills while listening to music that is substantial by nature. When feeling unattached during the listening process, the meaning, the subtext, the mood and especially the images the music could evoke, will pass you by and might even become meaningless.
Frank Bridge (1879-1941) has been described as a “conservative” composer, who lived in the so-called Edwardian period and a contemporary of Edward Elgar. Both interesting and conspicuous about his Phantasy Piano Quartet, H.94 is the fact that the composer entered it for the Cobbett Competition of 1910 – the year when composers were specifically required to write a “Fantasy”. Bridge was awarded the second prize. In Saturday evening’s performance Nina Schumann (piano), Alissa Margulis (violin), Juan Miguel Hernandez (viola) and Alexander Buslov (‘cello) approached the work with the kind of magical musicianship that, from the very first bar, opened up a magical exposé of the work’s basic latency which needs a special kin d of encouragement to make it flower like it did. To achieve this, the four musicians focused on the composer’s individual “language”, clarifying and enlightening the compositional arguments, but also being fully aware of the notion that the fantasy element is just that, rather than concrete. All four musicians had their moments where their solo parts could glow, but Nina Schumann on piano kept the work’s architecture on an even keel, while also exploring tonal beauty and the unusual harmonies, without ever dominating with too much power. Her three colleagues were given the space to fully cultivate their parts in such a way that it enriched this unusually mature but also reflective work’s stature.
Shostakovich’s Two Pieces for String Octet, Opus 11 are virtually unknown, while their genesis is somewhat clouded in mystery. The composer was busy completing his First Symphony – which would become very successful the world over – while tackling this strange beast of a work. Many theories may well abound as regards the following question: Why did Shostakovich feel the urge to write such a (for him) untypical work and, especially, within the specific period it originated? There is no easy answer. The already mentioned symphony was tonal and in some ways an equal to Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, even if the younger of the two colleagues wrote securely in the neo-classical idiom. It would not be out of line to think that Shostakovich temporarily wanted to escape the hardships of writing his debut symphony at the age of 19. Especially the second of these octet pieces is an agonising and surely most likely also a protesting and angst-ridden cri de coeur from a young composer under stress. And yes, the leader of the ensemble, Daniel Rowland, who explained that Shostakovich’s dedication to or commission for the work came from an acquaintance who was a scientist, might also be a deciding factor.
Nevertheless: The performance of the work took one on a ride through dark alleys. Short, fractured themes, eerie pianissimos, unexpected fermatas and a sense of mystery lets one think that this would be ideal soundtrack material for a thriller. The expressive range that was reached in the playing was astounding at times. This Prelude, marked Adagio, could scarcely prepare one for what was to follow… The second piece is marked Scherzo: Allegro molto. It’s a piece loaded with daredevilry and, some might say, even foolhardiness, plus rather aggressive in especially the higher regions reachable on string instruments. Apart from the leader, there were some harrowing solos on ‘cello as well as viola. The performance was scarcely a tightrope act of precision. Would it have been perfect in intonation and other matters, like a recording producer would have insisted, the frisson of every moment we as an audience have experienced, would have been absent.
In Caleb Hudson’s arrangement of Astor Piazzolla’s Suite consisting of Bordel 1900, Café 1930 and Nightclub 1960 we experienced the art of arrangement at its very best. It took four divergent but top-notch instrumentalists – Demarre McGill (flute), Billy Ray Hunter (trumpet), Peter Martens (‘cello) and Rob Knopper (marimba) – to fully satisfy us of this fact. Hudson feeds each instrument in the most idiomatic way possible so that the piece sounds newly minted. There were times in which I personally would have liked to hear more of the flute, but this was at the end of no real essence. Piazzolla’s playfulness around contrapuntal figurations had an edge in this performance. Just as fascinating were the flageolets and glissandi on Martens’ ‘cello. Knopper never dominated on the marimba. Café 1930 had a latter day aura of a Bach Suite (as if Bach was visiting Argentine!) while in a couple of brooding moments Hunter’s playing reminded me of the genius of Miles Davis. A rich atmosphere and Piazzola’s melodic richness mesmerised in the finale, Nightclub 1960.
One must really be an all-rounder in stylistic versatility to recognise exactly what Paul Schoenfield has accumulated on this level. Luis Malghaes (piano), Siwoo Kim (violin) and Alexander Buslov (‘cello) teamed up to take us on a wacky nostalgic trip in his Café Music for Piano Trio. I stopped identifying around number ten. This trio understood each nook and cranny of the music’s often hilarious subtext and ironic twists. In parts of the Presto-finale one could easily imagine a battalion of jumping frogs passing the parade. Amazing! How is that for imagination?