“Let’s travel back in time… Before there were movies or emails, before zippers or skirts, before books like the Kama Sutra, before the first lullaby was sung to a baby, nog voor daar mense was soos Zuma of ‘n krieket team soos die Proteas, before the time of Mitchells Plain and Distrik Ses… Now we are there: The Cretaceous Period – when dinosaurs roamed the earth!”

So began Trevor van Rensburg’s locally-inspired narration of Tyrannosaurus Sue: A Cretaceous Concertoin the second half of Tuesday night’s SICMF Faculty Concert. In this prehistoric Peter and the Wolf, which drew unmistakable parallels with Prokofiev’s famous musical fairy tale, the orchestra illustrated in seven short movements the life and adventures of Sue the T. rex

“Sue” is the nickname of the world’s best-preserved T. rexskeleton and “she” is housed in Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History. The composer, Bruce Adolphe, is currently Resident Lecturer and Director of Family Programs at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York City. Adolphe has composed music inspired by Einstein, Shakespeare, wind energy and neuroscience and so it is unsurprising that he would choose a dinosaur skeleton as the subject for one of his musical fantasies. 

The Tyrant Lizard King was depicted by the authoritative trombone (an obvious choice) and so Weston Sprott was the principal soloist in this sinfonia concertante. The introduction of other “characters” provided an excellent opportunity to showcase the skill of several Faculty artists in dialogue with the trombone. The clarinet (Ferdinand Steiner), for example, depicted the troodon (a smaller, smarter, faster carnivore) and the triceratops was represented by the French horn (Geoffrey Pilkington), no doubt chosen for its aesthetic resemblance to the three-horned dinosaur. The timbre of the bassoon (Andrew Brady) made that instrument an especially appropriate choice for the duck-billed Parasaurolophus. Occasional outbursts from the percussionist added some colour to the otherwise featureless orchestral writing. That said, the penultimate movement, which depicted the death of the dinosaurs, did require copious string glissandito portray the chilling apocalyptic scene. The work was brought to an unexpectedly tender conclusion by Andrej Bielow (violin), whose warmth and sincerity evoked beautiful responses from the oboe (Dwight Parry) and clarinet. 

The programmatic nature of this work makes it especially appealing to children or “non-musical” audiences. The Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra should consider adding Tyrannosaurus Sueto their repertoire for outreach projects. 

For many, the hidden gem of the evening was the Concerto da Camera in C minor for Piano and String Quintet, Op. 7, by Howard Hanson (1896-1981), which opened the programme. This was a solemn work and its contemplative opening evoked shadows of minimalists such as Arvo Pärt. There were moments of dramatic intensity, including a frantic passage in the latter part of the work that culminated in a dramatic moment of suspense – with the audience uncertain whether or not the work was finished, but not wanting to disturb the silence – until the opening material returned and slowly faded into oblivion. The atmosphere of this piece was captured most effectively by the performers, notably Nina Schumann (piano) who provided the musical and visual focal point.

Contemporary composers tend to give their music more descriptive titles than their predecessors; take, for example, Fernando Altube’s Cantos Tonales, en épocas atonales for Marimba and String Quartet (“Tonal Cantos, in the Epoch of Atonality”). Cantosmay mean “song” or “chant”, and this four-movement work was patently inspired by Altube’s homeland, Argentina. The first movement, a prayer to Mother Earth, was primordial in its atmosphere and the chant-like phrases in the strings were interrupted by abrupt awakenings from the marimba, played by Pedro Carneiro. (I missed the characteristic warmth and resonance of the instrument in this piece, but that was probably deliberate.) The second movement was based on a quick folk dance and required some dexterity from all the players. In the third movement, which was intended to depict a sensual scene from Nietzsche, it felt as though the marimba was intruding on the intimacy of the quartet (Bacharova, Martens, van Dijk and Martens) but the final tango, evoking fellow Argentine Astor Piazzolla, was an exercise in frantic syncopation for all.

The three works in last night’s fifth Faculty Concert were all South African premieres, emphasising the valuable role of the SICMF in introducing local audience to music they (we) might not otherwise hear. In the interval, I spoke to an irrepressibly-enthusiastic Xandi van Dijk, who wears so many different hats at this year’s Festival (viola player, conductor, tutor). His mantra to the students: “Keep your ears open. The more connected you are with your ears, the more connected you are with the flow of the music and with each other. Breathe together, and listen.” And that “viola moment” from the previous night’s string quintet? “It was an accident!” (In case you missed it, check out the short clip on our Facebook page.) 

Tonight’s penultimate Faculty Concert returns to Europe for music by Dvořák (Wind Serenade in D minor, Op. 44) and the lesser-known Swedish composer, Kurt Atterberg (1887-1974). Xandi van Dijk will be conducting Atterberg’s Sinfonia for Strings, Op. 53. If you are in town, catch the Student Ensemble Concerts at 1 pm and 5 pm, and David Cohen’s cello master class at 3 pm in the Fismer Hall. 

John Woodland


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