For a performer, there is little to match the exhilaration of a full house. Friday night’s first student concert at the 2019 Stellenbosch International Chamber Music Festival attracted a capacity audience for a musical programme that promised a rare blend of the contemporary and the Romantic. While the backstage crew carried out their final preparations in the Endler Hall, the forest of empty chairs and music stands on the stage signified the hundred or so students constituting this year’s Festival Symphony Orchestra.

What if classical musicians brought electronic dance music from the nightclub into the concert hall? That was the question posed by Matthijs van Dijk (b. 1983) for his “overture”, entitled Dance. From the downbeat, an unrelenting pulse was established by the drum kit over which a hypnotic melodic sequence was imitatively shared between the piano and the glockenspiel. The orchestral texture was decorated with snatches of woodwind, string sighs and thunderous percussion crashes. Nobody was better suited to conduct this work than the composer’s brother, Xandi, who brought a youthful ebullience to the stage. A sea of violin bows, captained by concertmaster Jeffrey Armstrong, rippled in sinuous waves to complement the sonic landscape. 

There were few in the audience who were expecting the agonised brooding of the Concerto for Viola and Orchestra, written by Soviet-German composer Alfred Schnittke in 1985. The work was completed only days before the composer suffered a serious stroke. After his partial recovery, Schnittke described the work as “a premonition of death”. 

Schnittke’s orchestration did not offer a return to the conventional. The violins were banished from the stage, leaving a chasm on the left-hand side of the conductor which emphasised the sparseness of the orchestration. The was further intensified by the skeletal timbre of the harpsichord. 

“It takes a solo performance of uncompromising panache and fanatical belief to show that there is more to this concerto than collective sadomasochism,” remarked a critic in Gramophone. Fortunately, Gareth Lubbe was on hand. Ready to tackle this musical dark night of the soul, Lubbe arrived on stage wearing a T-shirt inscribed “SOLO”. (This was possibly a reference to the Star Wars character but left no doubt as to his role in this work.)

Schnittke retained the traditional three-movement concerto form but opted to invert the usual tempo markings (slow-fast-slow). The disorientation was heightened by the composer’s decision to make each successive movement longer than the previous episode. Kudos to Lubbe for handling the aggressively uncompromising music (and audience) with virtuosity, conviction and humility. Perhaps he hoped to redeem himself by returning to familiar territory for an encore (JS Bach, adorned with his dazzling vocal overtones). As a final gesture, Lubbe invited the orchestral players to join him in a spontaneous riff that lifted the collective mood before the interval.

Those who were not friends or family of the student performers may have been drawn to the performance by the Symphony No. 3 in C minor by Saint-Saëns. Famously scored avec orgue(“with organ”), this work was dedicated to Franz Liszt and is conceived in two large movements. The symphony delivers a captivating musical narrativestretching from the opening movement’s agitated theme to the majestic organ finale. Saint-Saëns led the first Paris performance in 1887 and his colleague Charles Gounod declared, “There goes the French Beethoven!” (Although he was regarded as such, Saint-Saënshimself was more modest: “I am first among composers of the second rank.”)

This is not a trivial work; it is one of the most technically advanced and sophisticated symphonies of the late 19th century. Notwithstanding these demands, Xandi van Dijk and the Festival Symphony Orchestra delivered a compelling performance, sweeping up their audience in the drama. The frantic semiquaver passages were generally handled with precision although the hairpin dynamics and brass outbursts were, at times, overenthusiastic. In the Poco adagiosection, however, the lower strings created a luxurious bed of sound from which the King of Instruments seemed to emerge imperceptibly. Zorada Temmingh’s choice of registration for the organ was ideal, masterfully integrating her instrument into the orchestral timbre. 

In the second half of the work, the return of the symphony’s main material, which astute listeners may have recognised as the ancient Dies irae chant, seemed more secure in its scherzo-like transformation. The final Maestoso section was superb and, as Saint-Saënsunleashed the full power of his contrapuntal inventiveness, each family of instruments – strings, winds, brass, piano – had its time to shine. One cannot help feeling inspired after this triumphant finale, of which the young players must have savoured every note. No doubt the repeat performance of this work, which closes off this year’s SICMF on Sunday, will be equally moving. 

On Saturday, the Festival Concert Orchestra takes to the stage at 8 pm with a series of shorter works from Russia (Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asiaand Polovtsian Dances) and France (Pelléas et Mélisande by Fauré and DanseMacabre bySaint-Saëns). Soprano Janel Speelman will sing excerpts from Beethoven’s incidental music to Egmont, all under the baton of Pedro Carneiro. During the day, the final Student Ensemble Concerts take place at 1 pm and 5 pm. Your last opportunity to catch a public master class, this time with Juan-Miguel Hernandez (viola), is at 3 pm in the Fismer Hall.

Jonathan Woodland


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