Part of any festival, like the Stellenbosch International Chamber Music Festival you are attending now, should have certain rules in their constitution, or at least the kind of unrestrained driving force behind their right of existence, which will guarantee that the commission and promotion of new work is an essential right. Festivals the world over – it doesn’t really matter which art forms they represent – have this in place as a kind of commitment from their side to leave a legacy of value to later generations.

Composers without a commission is a bit like a hunter (hopefully only of non-endangered species!) without ammunition. He or she is ready for the kill, but it is somehow unobtainable. Composers are there to represent and enrich the musical legacy of their earliest kinsmen, like Jubal from Old Testament biblical times up to those that are alive today. The most outstanding wonderful thing about a new composition is that it is somehow like welcoming a new family member to the roster of literally millions of instrumental pieces and songs written since the dawn of time.

Today PAUL BOEKKOOI, your SICMF blogger, would like to let a cat out of the bag: Not just any cat, but one with a shiny black coat, bright green eyes which seem to be lit from behind, nails that were manicured and sharpened on a branch of a baobab tree and with a tail where sudden wiggling movements is a sure sign of nervousness and/or impatience regarding this species. It all boils down to this: Reviewing the première of a new composition is often as much of a nightmare as it is an enormous and weighty responsibility.

Music history is submerged with examples where critics and reviewers – some of them even very famous – just got it totally at the wrong end when trying to evaluate a new work by a world famous composer, or one by a Mr. Nobody who – perhaps through the grace of a string of gods – managed to write a masterpiece of sorts. It is just as well I left my source, where an extended collection of such controversies are bundled together, at home.  It really is shameful, but all of us who live today have an excuse and can at least say: Hindsight is, after all, the most exact science available.

Soundscapes flowing out of the South African composer’s pens and, more recently, computers, have substantially changed over the past decades.  My earliest personal awareness of SA composers revolved around a troika of Afrikaans born ones: Arnold van Wyk, Hubert du Plessis and Stefans Grové, but with a later generation – those born roughly during the middle 1940s and later – there was far more openness from their side and the direct contact between composers, conductors, soloists and orchestras also helped to enhance their profiles with the media. Especially the arrival of television in 1976 (very late in world terms) promoted the careers of the majority of SA composers.

Tuesday’s world première of SA born Robert Fokkens’ A Darkness Insinuating was the result of this year’s SICMF new composition commission.  In it he, according to the programme note annotator Barry Ross, most likely related to the standard dictionary definition of ‘insinuate’, but the composer added the following personal explanations: “A Darkness Insinuating is a meditation on what, as we live through it now, seems a defining moment in my lifetime. In the piece, the stealthy return and subsequent rise of forces which seems well-defeated as I came to adulthood is seen initially through a local lens. The implications of this, personally, nationally and globally, and the questions it raises about ourselves, are considered in the latter half of the piece”.

It’s rather a typical 21st century thing that composers feel the need to explain their work to the audience beforehand and be part of the show on stage. To each his own. We reputedly live in a democracy, after all. Composers during most eras in history approached their task in more or less two ways: On the one hand you get the intuitive, mostly spontaneous route, and then also a more intellectual one where composers reason that the listeners for the sake of eternity have to be informed about the work in great detail, although the overall picture should be kept rather vague. Gone are the days where new works are published and the performers are left freely to their own devises and insights. For fairness’ sake one must concede that many contemporary scores can be terribly complicated for those conductors and performers who are not regularly acquainted with them.

The chamber orchestra on stage for A Darkness Insinuating had one each of the three main brass instruments behind the strings and woodwind. The piano was on the far left, percussion nearer to the middle and the double bass in front of the brass, and the ‘cello just next to her to the right. The balance of sound reached the audience in a perfect state. All this was further enhanced by the conductor Xandi van Dijk who masterminded the ensemble to keep the sounds in control at all times.

This kind of quiet symphonic poem with deeply layered emotions which only seem to surface strongly when the returning waves symbolically hit the rocks, had itself lots of atmosphere. There is no doubt that Fokkens is a fine orchestrator. The structure of the piece reminded me off the ebb and flow of a seascape, although one soon (perhaps just too soon?) started to identify typical township music before the next section took its course.  In the final ten or so minutes the work became more coherent and gripping, with a stunning portrayal of sounds trying to cluster together before finally disappearing altogether. Did we reach nirvana? Definitely not, but the darkness at least could be felt…

In the second half of this concert we were entertained by the intuitive charm of the Frenchman Adolphe Blanc’s Septet Op. 40 in E major, in a performance  by Ferdinand Steiner (clari net), Brad Bailliett (bassoon), Jeff Nelsen (horn), NicholasDautricourt (violin), Juan-Miguel Hernandez (viola), Peter Martens (‘cello) and Uxía Martínez Botana (double  bass).

It is not a strange piece at all. Not in any way. The opening Allegro is the most extensive and masterly movement, with especially a number of inventive virtuoso passages which kept the clarinettist on his toes. Thereafter he may not have needed them at all, because, strangely, he has relatively little to do. The Andante links the listener with beauty. Here we find an extended solo on the French horn which felt as it was played in one fell swoop. Luckily Jeff Nelson found time to breath. This act was followed with another brave one by Brad Bailliett on his bassoon. The Scherzo was brief and taken at a lick, while the Finale’s Andante maestoso sounded slow, but with a correct inherent tension in expectation of the Allegro moderato which opened with a humorous cadenza in which Nicholas Dautricourt shone. Throughout the performance as a whole there was continuously an excellent repartee between Martens’ ‘cello and Botana’s double bass. 



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