By day nine the SICMF is really peaking. Apart from guest ensemble lunch hour concerts earlier during the festival, there were two sessions of Student Ensemble Concerts (11 and 12) on Saturday, at 13:00 and 17:00 respectively. Both of them, timewise, seemed to never end because every group wanted to show off their best side, with challenging repertoire for their particular combination of instruments. On Saturday we also experienced the final master class, led by bassoonist Brad Bailliett, of nine in total which were presented. Audiences craving to accumulate more knowledge about the art of performing a variety of instruments, the art of conducting or composing, as well as horn player Jeff Nelson’s extensive discourse on “fearless performance”, walked out of these sessions with so much more comprehension of what exactly it takes before you can dare to call yourself a master. And then we also had a final edition of one of the most stimulating, insightful and often very funny daily events: the conversations between high profile musicians and how they feel about their profession, music and life as a whole. All this is part of the non-stop abundance which has become typical of a festival like the SICMF. The final evening concert of 2017 was also part of this overflowing day: Conductor Joost Smeets from The Netherlands, here on his first visit, led the Festival Concert Orchestra in three very approachable works. PAUL BOEKKOOI reports.
The FCO consists of junior musicians attending the SICMF, some of whom engaged this year in their first experience of orchestral playing. Most of them have been part of smaller ensembles, but here they are confronted with big works, serious composers, as well as a conductor who has to get them on the highest level possible within the shortest time frame. Crucial to the whole process is selecting a shortlist of repertoire which can fit in with the importance of pedagogical aims, but still leave space for youngsters to challenge themselves while having fun. Maestro Smeets chose as an opening piece for their Stellenbosch and Khayelitsha concerts the Piet Hein Rhapsody by the late-Romantic Dutch composer Peter van Anrooij (1879-1954).
In the history of orchestral music from The Netherlands, this piece is regarded as an orchestral pot-boiler which somehow satisfied many demands: Its theme is based on a popular patriotic song from the 17th century, written by J.J. Viotta, with lyrics by J.P. Heije, with the title “De Zilvervloot”. The song is all about the Dutch naval hero, admiral Pieter Pieterzoon Hein (1577-1629), who was a privateer (or freelancer in today’s lingo) for the Dutch Republic during the so-called Eighty Years War between what was then known as the “Lowlands” and Spain. He was also the first and the last Dutch seafarer to overwhelm and subject the Spanish in his process of capturing a valuable haul of goods their “silverfleet” was carrying from America, which also included this precious metal.
The rhapsody of some nine minutes’ duration is brilliantly orchestrated, while the theme finds its way through many sections in the orchestra, giving each of them to shine with the theme itself or the fragmented, but very clever variations with which Van Anrooij leads the listener’s ear. It’s rather astonishing how the compactness of the work makes one feel as if it is longer than it is. Like Liszt managed to do with his Hungarian Rhapsodies for piano – finding a rather catchy but easily recognisable theme and then elaborating on it with feeling and virtuosity as his main aim – so Van Anrooij seems to do the same. The fact that it is an orchestral showpiece makes the whole experience so much more riveting. The large orchestra needed to realise this score to its full extent, were sitting like sardines on stage and gave a performance cutting to our hearts.
One of the SICMF of 2017’s most well kept secrets crept like a cat out of a bag when the well-known actor Armand Aucamp walked on stage and sat down to be the narrator in Edvard Grieg’s Bergliot, Op. 42. It was announced that the original story around Bergliot, dating back to the 12th century poet Snorre Sturlason, would not be resuscitated for this occasion on 8 July 2017 in the 21st century. Something more “contemporary” would be offered. The original Grieg score might have been cut and pasted somewhat in 21st century style, but the extended funereal music at the end I recognised from a recording where the original story is told in the Norwegian language.
When Aucamp started off, no one was immediately sure of what his text will be about. In a clever, but at the same time a somewhat manipulative way, he kept the audience guessing about what the real story or its theme would reveal. Storytelling is, after all, exactly about delaying the raison d’etre for telling it in the first place. As Aucamp continued, with short interruptions from orchestral interludes which had not really anything to do with the gradually opening up of the text, the audience soon caught the jest of it all. This was all about one of our greatest needs to keep body and soul together: FOOD!
With high levels of fine articulation and diction from which one could clearly hear very word, the initially rather straight-faced narrator played a subtle cat and mouse game with his audience. He let certain food and food products related words playfully rhyme, while some other give-aways started to flood the by now well entertained audience, who more and more started recognising words like “banting”, “eggs”, “pies”, “Tim Noakes”, “Sasko”, “food trolley” and “Johnny is dood”. This last one, which, by the way, came as a shocker, suddenly restored some of the very quiet responses with which the show started.
There’s no doubt that the audience loved this unusual piece and that Aucamp’s talent, his writing, his intuitive feeling for contrasting satire with nearly uninhibited melodrama, plus his presence as an entertainer, gave the concert further standing. Let us not forget the commitment and dedication of the orchestra and their conductor. Joost Smeets had a way with suggesting humour by placing and contrasting satire against melodrama. He expressed the music in a way it made sense. If this South African Bergliot can sustain itself due to its topicality which might, perhaps, not wear off that quickly, it should be filmed and, who knows, could well be performed by university orchestras since 98 percent of the text is in English.
In nine excerpts from Bizet’s Carmen Suites 1 &2 in arrangements by Ernest Guiraud plus a tenth given as an encore, Smeets and the Festival Concert Orchestra did a lot to reimage in the mind’s eye the drama and music of this opera which would become one of the first, but also one of the most enduring examples of verismo in opera. This is music that is more challenging to play than the notes meeting the eye suggest. Smeets concentrated on the excitement, the pulse, but also the lyrical swoop of many of the best-known excerpts, while managing to extract the beauty of some of the more intimate pieces with total conviction.