The first half of Monday night’s SICMF Faculty Concert dispelled the notion that chamber music is necessarily a serious business. The opening work was Hans Roosenschoon’s piano quartet, The man who (unknowingly) mistook his music for mathematics, which was written for this year’s Johannesburg International Mozart Festival. (The title may remind you of the book by neurologist Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, which was later adapted into an opera by Michael Nyman.) Imagine the audience’s surprise when Juan-Miguel Hernandez arrived on the stage sporting a set of purple fairy wings and a bottle of Old Brown Sherry!

Hernandez was joined by SICMF Artistic Director Nina Schumann (piano), Farida Bacharova (violin) and Peter Martens (cello) in this unusual, four-movement work that paid homage to Mozart in various ways. For example, excessive use is made of the famous opening passage of Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C major, K. 545, and there are also references to his satirical composition, AMusical JokeK. 522– most especially the demonstration of polytonality in which the instruments temporarily play in different keys at the same time! The composer also requests various vocal effects such as whispering, speaking, shouting and singing and asks for some unusual favours such as closing the keyboard lid and reciting a short passage attributed to German mathematician, Leibniz: “Music is a hidden arithmetic exercise of the soul, which does not know that it is counting.” 

Even if not all the performers seemed entirely convinced by the aleatoric and extra-musical demands required by the score, its light-heartedness elicited great enjoyment from the audience who also appreciatively acknowledged the composer when he arrived on the stage to greet the performers.

It took some time to re-arrange the stage for the small orchestra for which the next work was scored, heightening the feeling of anticipation in the Endler Hall. One of the most talked-about musical events at this year’s SICMF has been the collaborative commission from two young Stellenbosch-based composers, Arthur Feder and Antoni Schonken. Their brief was to honour a figure from the anti-apartheid struggle. A musician was the obvious choice; hence, they decided to pay tribute to the life and music of Johnny Clegg. Clegg’s success at bridging racial divides by merging Zulu and English lyrics, and African and Western musical styles, was a thorn in the flesh of the apartheid government. The title of their work, There was no way back, refers to the young Clegg’s realisation that his unique cross-over style would become a cornerstone of his future musical endeavours. 

The large ensemble, comprising both Faculty artists and students, was conducted by Xandi van Dijk and featured guest narrator (and musical superstar in her own right) Gloria Bosman. From the opening bars, the five-movement work imparted a sweeping cinematic feel. The expansive soundscape of the initial movement was punctuated by gentle touches of percussion. Unusual colours from the piano and solo passages from instruments such as the trumpet and cello accompanied the spoken reflections on Clegg’s “new kind of music”. 

Bosman’s narration, both dignified and expressive, blended seamlessly with the ensemble as if her voice were another orchestral instrument. The narrative text was thoughtfully compiled and ranged from lyrics from Clegg’s songs to personal reflections and snippets from interviews, including the alienation experienced by “The White Zulu” as he went against the laws of a pre-democratic South Africa. Filmic gestures in the score gave weight to the words and focused them in the mind’s eye. Naturally, reworked material from several of Clegg’s well-known songs, including as The CrossingWoza Africaand Impi,was included. But these were not the only songs that were heard in the Endler last night; after the premiere, Bosman could not leave the stage without sharing a tribute of her own – Time Will Tell – as an encore for the ecstatic audience.

How do two composers jointly write a piece of music? Schonken revealed to Xandi van Dijk (who was wearing his interviewer’s hat in the lecture shortly before the performance) that brutal honesty was necessary for a productive collaborative relationship. In response to a question from Festival patron Denis Goldberg (who himself was the subject of a special commission by the SICMF in 2016) about music’s capacity to change the world, Feder asserted that, “You can never compose the outside before you have composed the inside.” In other words, one of Clegg’s virtues was that he did not immediately try to change the world with his music but rather created music that was an expression of himself (the “inside”), only to discover later that that his music was having a larger resonance amongst others and beyond our borders (the “outside”).

After the interval, we cast back over a century in history to one of the late chamber works by Brahms. His String Quintet No. 2 in G major, Op. 111, published in 1890, was played by Marc Bouchkov (violin 1), Alissa Margulis (violin 2), Juan-Miguel Hernandez (viola 1), Xandi van Dijk (viola 2) and David Cohen (cello). While scoring the work for two violas gives the quintet a rich warmth, it also creates challenges for the instrumentalists who must work harder to maintain the clarity of the individual voices. The first movement began with a symphonic touch as the quasi-orchestral tremolo texture accompanied the cello’s suitably-prominent soaring melody. The opening movement ended with a satisfying flourish which yielded to the contemplative yet seductively swaying theme of the Adagio. The third movement waltz, although punctuated by syncopation, had a spring in its step with a hint of wistfulness. The finale, which exhibited Brahms’s love of Hungarian gypsy music, allowed the quintet to let down their hair and provided a satisfying arc with the first work on the concert programme.

The entire evening was imbued with a sense of forward-looking optimism. Shortly before the Faculty Concert, visiting students from the Xiquitsi Project in Mozambique surprised guests with their cheerful tunes as they “jammed” in the foyer together with other Faculty artists. It is not an easy time to be a (young) South African, but last night’s Faculty Concert, which embraced and celebrated so many different aspects of our collective heritage, might go some way in helping us to find a new way forward. Time will tell…

Tuesday night’s Faculty Concert takes us further off the beaten musical track and continues to expand the sound world to which we have been exposed at this year’s SICMF. The programme is bookended by works from North America: Concerto da Camera by Howard Hanson and Tyrannosaurus Sue: A Cretaceous Concerto by Bruce Aldophe – a musical fantasy inspired by the King of Dinosaurs. In between, expect to be beguiled by Argentine Fernando Altube with his piece for marimba and string quartet (“Tonal Cantos, in the Epoch of Atonality”). As usual, our live stream from the Endler Hall will commence shortly before 8 pm.

John Woodland


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