“It’s like Christmas in July!” exclaimed one loyal supporter who has been attending the Stellenbosch International Chamber Music Festival since its inception in 2004. She, along with other audience members, hundreds of young students and a constellation of top musicians representing a host of countries from around the globe, have descended on the university town for a ten-day feast of rehearsals, concerts, coaching sessions and public master classes. The result, as Festival Director Peter Martens declared at the opening event yesterday, is exhilarating for performers and audience alike.
The SICMF aims to nurture the talent of young instrumentalists and facilitate their musical growth by exposing them to outstanding musicianship. Perhaps the jewel in the SICMF’s crown is the series of seven Faculty Concerts that take place each evening over the first week of the festival. Last night’s opening Faculty Concert demonstrated the bold, imaginative programming for which the SICMF is celebrated.
As the audience poured into the Stellenbosch Konservatorium’s Endler Hall, the feeling of musical electricity was heightened by a last-minute, special addition to the programme: Faculty violinist Marc Bouchkov, fresh from being minted as silver laureate at the 2019 Tchaikovsky International Competition, opened the evening with Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst’s thrilling arrangement of the Irish folk song, The Last Rose of Summer. This set of variations, with each subsequent iteration further decorating and embellishing the principal tune, was an unforgettable demonstration of technical mastery and exceptional musicianship. (Because of the extreme challenges of this piece, few musicians allow their performances of this work to be recorded!)
Bouchkov was then joined on stage by seven other “virtuoso violinists” (as demanded by the score) for the first official work on the programme – the innovative Gran Turismo for eight violinsby American composer Alexander Norman (b. 1979). While much of Norman’s music has architecture as its stimulus, this work was instead inspired by the skill of Baroque violinists and, in an unlikely turn of events, the motor racing game, “Gran Turismo”. (His housemates at the time were enthralled by the addictive video game.) In a work that screams “Higher! Louder! Faster!”, one could imagine, at times, being chased by the occasional sirens of the (musical) police. Besides the technical demands placed on the performers, this was an execution of impressive ensemble – with the sudden and surprising bars of rests leaving the audience breathless, before the violinists took off on another frenetic musical jaunt.
A second nod to old-meets-new was an arrangement of Handel’s Suite for Harpsichord in G minor, entitled Passacaglia, by Norwegian Romantic composer Johan Halvorsen (1864-1935), but here specially re-imagined by SICMF Faculty members Gareth Lubbe and Marc Bouchkov. Somewhat unusually, the violin and viola are treated as equals in this beautiful duet. But in Lubbe and Bouchkov’s hands (and voices), their melodic lines were “decorated” with two unconventional instruments: Lubbe’s otherworldly overtone singing and Marc Bouchkov’s rhythmically-driving beatboxing. The effect was spellbinding and, afterwards, the audience leapt to its feet to acknowledge this triumph of musical innovation. In a delightful aside to the audience as he arrived on stage, Lubbe commented that this piece was a play on history: “What if the musicians of centuries ago arrived here [South Africa] and said, ‘What can we do with you guys?’” Perhaps this sort of collaboration of musical cultures, and re-imagining of musical history, ought to be more enthusiastically encouraged!
The second half of the evening saw a return to more traditional, but no less exhilarating, chamber repertoire. It is well known that Mendelssohn wrote his miraculous Octet in E-flat majorwhen he was only a teenager but later revised the work to remove some of the flourishes of adolescent indulgence. The resulting expertly-crafted score, essentially for double string quartet, was handled with apparent ease and youthful vigour by the performers (delightfully heightened by visiting violist Juan-Miguel Hernandez’s bright red socks!). From the recognisable opening phrases to the touching slow movement, to the Walpurgis-Scherzo and the Presto finale, one had the impression that the musicians had been playing this work together for years. It is difficult to imagine, instead, that this music had been put together in a handful of rehearsals – but such is the expertise of these world-class musicians.
This afternoon, the SICMF continues apace on its second day with two guest ensemble concerts and a public master class featuring Portuguese conductor and percussionist, Pedro Carneiro. Tonight, Carneiro will also be in conversation with Festival Planning and Development Director (and Faculty pianist), Luis Magalhães. The second Faculty Concert at 8 pm begins exactly where last night’s left off – with Mendelssohn’sString Quartet No. 4. The second work exposes us to the Russian nationalist voice of Rimsky-Korsakov with the Quintet in B-flat majorfor piano, flute, clarinet, bassoon and horn. Tickets for all these events may be booked through Computicket but will also be available at the door. Finally, don’t forget that the Faculty Concert will also be live-streamed from our website www.sicmf.co.za and social media platforms, on which you are also most welcome to engage with us.