The musical chefs at the 2019 Stellenbosch International Chamber Music Festival prepared the perfect feast at last night’s final Faculty Concert. The four-movement menu was carefully selected and balanced to satisfy the palates of the musicians and the audience alike.The evening began with a “toast” by Festival Director Peter Martens in anticipation of the supreme Russian artistry that would be exhibited later in the evening, as he welcomed the vice-consul from the Russian Consulate in Cape Town.

All four items on the programme were showpieces for string instruments. Hence, it was appropriate to begin with a work that was a crucial ancestor in the evolution of the concerto as we know it today – Vivaldi’s Concertofor four violins in B minor, Op. 3, No. 10, RV 580. This piece is taken from “The Harmonic Inspiration”, a collection of string works by Vivaldi that has been described as the most important contribution to orchestral music from the 18th century. 

The outer movements of this fast-slow-fast work are both in ritornelloform, unfolding as series of alternating orchestral and solo episodes. The opening Allegrofeatured expressive conversations amongst the four soloists – Marc Bouchkov, Andrej Bielow, Madeline Adkins and Suzanne Martens – while the central Larghettoforeshadowed the famous shivering scene that would appear some years later in “Winter” from The Four Seasons. Scintillating playing from each soloist was observed in the final movement, with support from the accompanying ripienoand guest harpsichordist Erik Dippenaar. 

It was at this point that Festival Logistics Manager, Brent Reynolds, interrupted proceedings to present a special award to Marc Bouchkov, who was shortly to depart for the airport. Undoubtedly the “golden boy” of this year’s SICMF, Bouchkov was awarded the Ba-“Rock Star” prize for “receiving the loudest applause before playing a single note at last Friday’s Faculty Concert”. (A trend, I hasten to add, that has continued throughout the week!)

The main course on the programme was an electrifyingly virtuosic rendition of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1. The composer wrote this work for Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007), who famously learnt the whole piece off-by-heart in just four days. From the first statement of the sinister four-note theme, Alexander Buzlov possessed an immense gravitas and focus throughout the opening, restless march. The motif was tossed between soloist and orchestra, over the course of which it was varied, developed and taken into successively higher registers of the solo instrument. Perhaps Buzlov was channelling the spirit of the great master for whom this work was written. The slow movement featured a simple, folk-like melody which culminated in the ghostly sounds of the cello and the twinkling celesta, before Buzlov plunged into the lengthy cadenza, eventually wrenching the orchestra into the exuberant finale. Shostakovich’s spare orchestration gave the work a sarcastic sneer which was mirrored by conductor Pedro Carneiro’s almost dispassionate engagement. 

As a post-interval palate cleanser, a series of special prizes were awarded to, amongst others, David Cohen (for “whipping his hair back and forth”), “The Three Socketeers” (for their colourful socks), Xandi van Dijk (the “hashtag-trending award” for that now-infamous moment in the Brahms string quintet) and Artistic Director Nina Schumann. Weston Sprott received an SICMF “imaginary honorary doctorate” for his indefatigable support of the Festival at home and abroad. Sprott, who was also my guest during the interval interview, is passionate about promoting diversity and inclusion in classical music.

The dolce(dessert) was the single, sprawling movement comprising the Gran Duo Concertante for Violin and Bassby Giovanni Bottesini. While Bottesini might be an unfamiliar name to many concertgoers, his skill as a double bass player has earned him a place alongside the Romantic virtuosi of Paganini, Liszt and Chopin. “Under his bow, the double bass groaned, sighed, cooed, sang, quivered, roared – an orchestra in itself with irresistible force and the sweetest expression,” reported a critic, describing Bottesini in concert – and a review that could apply equally to Uxía Martínez Botana as she brought out the nuances of this seldom-heard solo instrument. She was joined by Adkins, a consummate performer, and both soloists could scarcely conceal their enthusiasm to share an encore with the appreciative audience.

The lights dimmed and the Endler Hall appeared to metamorphose into a concert stadium for the final work, which would serve as a digestif. Thunderstruck, arranged especially for four cellos and ensemble by John Walton, featured a formidable quartet comprising Buzlov, David Cohen, Peter Martens and Colette Brand. The soloists, now appropriately attired for a work of this nature, joined conductor Xandi van Dijk who, with bow rather than baton, entreated the audience to participate by singing and clapping, transcending the rules of traditional concert etiquette. Perhaps a comment retrieved from social media sums it up best: “The Vivaldi was lovely. Bottesini unique. Thunderstruckout of this world!”

Something very special was experienced in the Stellenbosch Konservatorium last night. The exceptional musicianship, shared generously by the artists on stage, was hungrily devoured by the audience – with the musicians, in turn, feeding on their fervour. Everyone felt uplifted and invigorated, going back as better people into the real world, satisfied after a musical feast of symphonic proportions. 

Expect a full auditorium tonight for the Festival Symphony Orchestra’s first concert. Xandi van Dijk conducts his brother Matthijs’s composition Dance, and Faculty artist Gareth Lubbe stars in Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto for Viola and Orchestra. The second half will feature the French Romanticism of another great composer, Saint-Saëns, in his exquisitely-crafted “Organ Symphony”. All will be broadcast on our streaming channel that goes live just before 8 pm South African time.

John Woodland


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Recent Posts

Recent Comments