The inclusion of music by Antonin Dvořák on the programme at last night’s Faculty Concert reminded us that the composers of old did not work in isolation. The Czech composer’s success was due largely to the enthusiasm of Brahms for his work who, in turn, had Robert Schumann to thank for launching his career. This sense of fellowship and mutual support has been a recurring theme at the Stellenbosch International Chamber Music Festival, with the camaraderie amongst the musicians extending well beyond these ten days into the future – nurturing friendships, providing encouragement and moulding careers.

Dvořák’s Wind Serenade in D minor, Op. 44, looks back to the charming era of Mozart who wrote several such works for outdoor entertainment (sera is Italian for “evening”, the serene time). Despite the large size of the ensemble, the horseshoe arrangement of the players imparted an intimacy to the performance. Mentioning this to my mid-concert guest, Faculty bass player Uxía Martínez Botana concurred: “It’s a fun piece and I think he [Dvořák] composed it to have a really great time between friends, and I think we transmitted this on the stage.”

The true delight of this piece lies in Dvořák’s mastery of wind writing. The tempo of the first movement, quasi marcia,was well-chosen; stately yet optimistic, but with a dark, mocking touch. Colourful imitations were volleyed amongst the instruments, typical of Dvořák’s style. The second movement evoked outdoor listening on a balmy evening, while the subsequent movement featured a lyrical melody spun out by the first clarinet and the first oboe (Ferdinand Steiner and Dwight Parry, respectively) to the accompaniment of the horns. The Finalereturned the opening march theme; this time, even the technical crew were noticed to be singing along from the confines of their studio! Despite not being scored for flutes, the work was kept light and graceful. Reliable support was provided from the bassoons and horns. Given the Slavic character of the music, I missed an element of rustic recklessness in this otherwise refined performance. 

In contrast to the Dvořák, the Sinfonia for Strings, Op. 53,by Swedish composer Kurt Atterberg (1887-1974) must have been regarded as curiously isolationist and nostalgic by his fashionable contemporaries (think of Bartók, Schönberg, Messiaen and Stockhausen). Although luxuriously romantic, this Nordic work exhibited plenty of vigour in the second movement scherzo. The string writing took me by surprise, reminding me variously of Peter Warlock, Vaughan Williams and Elgar. The sections were led by Faculty artists Madeline Adkins, Suzanne Martens, Gareth Lubbe, Peter Martens and Uxía Martínez Botana. (Martens was standing in, at short notice, for Alexander Buzlov who was fully engaged with his preparation for Thursday night’s Shostakovich cello concerto.) A highlight of the sentimental Tranquillomovement was the sublime solo played by Madeline Adkins, bookended by an ominous theme in the bass that was masked by a motif of forced-frivolity in the upper strings. The jauntiness of the final movement subsided in an unanticipated yet fragile coda that left a satisfied smile on conductor Xandi van Dijk’s face.

Those watching the live-stream channel may not have consciously noticed the rapid, seamless “cuts” made by the video crew to match the tempo and mood of the final movement. These were executed by five music technology students from the Memphis Music Initiative who have joined this year’s Festival. In another SICMF success story, these students – Coby Bennet, Saniyah Bennet-Rauls, Madison Jackson, Amiya Reed and Samaiya Riley – have worked busily behind the cameras all week, under the guidance of technician Pierre-Arnold Theron, to bring our music to a much wider audience.

After the applause, many of the musicians and by-now-familiar audience members made their way to nearby Stellenbosch haunt, The Fat Butcher – reminding us that those behind the instruments are, after all, real people. Over the sharing of wine and laughter with friends and colleagues, recounting the triumphs (and occasional blunders) of the evening’s performance, one almost forgets the very long road that it has taken each musician to arrive at this point. AsMartínez Botana observed earlier in the evening: “The most important thing is to listen to yourself – your inner voice, your intuition – to be very stubborn, and to practise a lot.” 

The symphonic feel of Thursday night’s Faculty Concert, the last in the series, will set the tone for the three student orchestral concerts over the coming evenings (Friday to Sunday). Tonight’s programme celebrates string soloists and begins with Vivaldi’s Concerto for four violins in B minor, RV 580, before a presentation of Shostakovich’sCello Concerto No. 1with Alexander Buzlov. (Pedro Carneiro conducts.) In the second half, the Gran Duo Concertanteby Bottesini will give the double-bass its moment in the sun. Finally, listen out for the specially-commissioned arrangement of Thunderstruck, popularised by the duo 2CELLOS who have received over 150 million YouTube views for their high-octane rendition of the AC/DC hit.

John Woodland


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