There are many remarkable aspects of the Stellenbosch International Chamber Music Festival. Surely one of these must be the inclusion of a significant number of musical works that local audiences would otherwise be unlikely to hear on the stage. Perusing the programme, one is struck by the number of works that are listed as “South African premieres” and hence have almost certainly not been performed on these shores before. When devising the programme for a performance, artistic directors must no doubt be torn between including more conventional fare (which are often considered important to attract an audience) and unusual or contemporary works (many of which have an unfortunate reputation for being inaccessible or “unlistenable”).

But the SICMF has a reputation for masterful programming by ingeniously juxtaposing the great works of the repertoire alongside lesser-known or altogether new (and occasionally challenging) music. Not only does this serve an important pedagogical purpose for the students but, as Festival Director Peter Martens points out in his Programme Foreword, it “introduces us to the beauty and treasure of new music we did not even know we would like”. 

For example, this year’s first Faculty Concert featured two local premieres: Gran Turismo for eight violins by Andrew Norman and Passacaglia by Handel/Halvorsen (specially arranged by Faculty artists Gareth Lubbe and Marc Bouchkov). Tuesday evening’s fifth Faculty Concert will feature two local premieres of American works: Concerto da Camera in C minor for Piano and String Quintet, Op. 7 by Howard Hanson and Tyrannosaurus Sue: A Cretaceous Concerto by Bruce Aldophe. Later in the week, still further South African premieres include works by Atterberg, Shostakovich and a special arrangement of the AC/DC hit, Thunderstruck. (See the full programme for complete details.)

Sunday night’s Faculty Concert also included the first local performance of a work by contemporary French composer Guillaume Connesson (b. 1970). The Double Quatuor for flute, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet and string quartet, a relentlessly-driving, single-movement work, was played by an all-star cast comprising Faculty wind players Demarre McGill (flute), Dwight Parry (oboe), Ferdinand Steiner (clarinet) and Daniel Prozesky (bass clarinet) and string staff Andrej Bielow (violin 1), Alissa Margulis (violin 2), Gareth Lubbe (viola) and Alexander Buzlov (cello).

This new work was preceded by a more conventional chamber piece written by Francois Devienne (1759-1803) who has been described as “one of the best-kept secrets of French music history”. Devienne’s Quartet for bassoon, violin, viola and cello in G minor, Op. 73, No. 3, featured Faculty bassoonist Andrew Brady who retained the lead voice throughout the entire work, comprising a stately Allegroopening that was followed by a slow movement and a finale in rondo form. Along with his “accompaniment” – Farida Bacharova (violin), with whom the bassoon was often in duet, Xandi van Dijk (viola) and Peter Martens (cello) – these players provided delightful contrasts between the cantabilemelodies and virtuosic passages. 

I particularly enjoyed Brady’s warm tone and his attention to phrasing that was always in excellent balance with the other players. During our brief chat in the interval, when I asked the bassoonist to reflect on the work (considering that the composer himself played the bassoon), Brady commented: “It was a fun performance! There were a lot of things that were spontaneous that we didn’t rehearse; they just came together and melded on stage and it was really beautiful.” Perhaps we don’t hear enough of the bassoon in the Cape?

In Connesson’s Quatuour, the winds are often set against the strings, forming two separate musical ensembles; as Barry Ross’s helpful programme notes point out, the composer suggests that this characteristic of the piece is “intended to be at once industrial and romantic”. This work was not unlike the Gran Turismowe heard on the first night, with its relentless rhythms chugging away like a factory line or perhaps even a train (Steve Reich?). I particularly enjoyed the smiles that the work elicited from the performers (chamber music is usually a serious business!) who could be seen nodding along to the beat – perhaps to assist them with keeping in time during this fast-paced work! There were many sublime moments during which the strings or winds were allowed to explore more lyrical material which provided some respite from the inexorable forward-drive. I am certain that many in the audience will be adding Connesson to their YouTube playlists after hearing this piece.

The weight of Sunday evening’s Faculty Concert lay with Tchaikovsky’sPiano Trio in A minor, Op. 50. This was the Russian composer’s only contribution to the genre, about which he wrote: “I fear I may have arranged music of a symphonic character as a trio, instead of writing directly for the instruments.” And indeed, exhilarating as it was for the audience, this enormous work must have been a marathon for the performers. Despite its “symphonic character”, the intimacy of the trio was preserved by the exceptionally tight ensemble comprising Alissa Margulis and Alexander Buzlov (violin and cello, respectively) and pianist Luis Magalhães, who would occasionally peer over his glasses to consult the string players in this epic “trialogue”.

Tchaikovsky’s trio comprises an unusual musical structure. The sonata-form Pezzo elegiaco is a sweeping narrative that features, at its heart, a mournful main theme. The second movement is a monumental series of variations based a folk-like theme, with the last variation set apart from the rest (almost a movement on its own) and ending with a touching Andante lugubre. (The complete score, which was followed closely by the live-stream team, is over a hundred pages in length.) The infinite variety of the variations – ranging from an expressive mazurka and an academic-sounding fugue to more introspective musical treatments – were executed with a wonderful spontaneity, mirroring Tchaikovsky’s seemingly endless inspiration. Dedicated to Tchaikovsky’s teacher, mentor and close friend Nikolai Rubinstein, this Piano Triois a masterpiece of the genre. There was a stunned silence following the final bars, marked poco a poco morendo, after which the cheers and ovation from the appreciative audience gave one goosebumps.

Later today, and for the rest of the week, the Student Ensemble Concerts take place in the Fismer Hall at 1 pm and 5 pm. This afternoon (Monday), these concerts will represent composers as diverse as Mozart, Schubert, Fauré, Karl Jenkins and Allan Stephenson. There is also palpable excitement for Marc Bouchkov’s public master class with well-known young violinists Jeffery Armstrong, Jordan Brooks and Zoë Coetzee at 3 pm. Tonight’s Faculty Concert features the world premiere of There was no way back, written especially for the SICMF by Arthur Feder and Antoni Schonken, who together will be in conversation with the work’s conductor, Xandi van Dijk, just beforehand at 7 pm.

John Woodland


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