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Review: Samro Hubert van der Spuy National Music Competition Impresses

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neo motsaseI used to worry about the future of classical music in South Africa, but not anymore. After attending the recent SAMRO Hubert van der Spuy National Music Competition I am confident that my musical concerns have been superfluous, as I have utterly underestimated the young men and women of the next generation. The future of our music is in safe hands.

It all started 25 years ago when the South African Society of Music Teachers (SASMT) – inspired by Prof Hubert van der Spuy – organised the first national competition for young music scholars (up to 13 years of age). The search for South Africa’s brightest young music star has since inspired many young musicians and today approximately 60 young candidates from across the country are annually selected to compete in four categories: Piano, Strings, Woodwind and Brass instruments, and Other Instruments (including percussion, recorder, classical guitar and harp).

Four years ago the competition reached another milestone, when an additional sub-category was included for candidates from poor or disadvantaged communities who receive their music tuition in development outreach initiatives. Since SAMRO foundation came on board in 2011 (the competition was previously sponsored by Sanlam) the initiative has grown from strength to strength. In addition to the generous category prizes that are up for grabs, candidates also compete for the best performance of a baroque work, classical composition, romantic work, and South African composition. And then there are the coveted overall first, second and third prizes, as well as the prize for the most promising candidate aged 10 years or younger.

The Hugo Lambrechts Centre was abuzz with activity and excitement on the final evening of this year’s competition. Filling the foyer was the animated chatter of music teachers sharing stories and advice with valued colleagues. The parents of the young music enthusiasts stood nervously sipping their sparkling wine while the youngsters themselves – perfectly dressed in their concert attire – ran around and played with their new-found friends. André le Roux, Managing Director of the SAMRO Foundation, certainly captured the atmosphere of the evening when he likened the effect that this competition has had on the participants, parents, teachers and other role players in the industry, with that of a family.

Eight musicians had been ultimately selected to perform in the final round of this year’s competition and the audience sat amazed as the performers appeared on stage for a brief introduction. They all just seemed so ‘little’ and the works listed on the evening’s programme so ‘big’. Jacqueline Choi, an 11-year old piano student of Mario Nell, opened the evening with Bach’s French Suite No. 2 in C minor BWV 813: Menuet & Air. The evening was certainly off to a splendid start as this young performer showcased her wonderfully sensitive baroque approach. Collette du Toit (12) and Emily Morgan (11) continued to dazzle us on the piano and young Alexander Whitehead (12) gave a superb performance on the cello.

Upon learning of Whitehead’s rather peculiar music tuition, the audience was even more impressed by his performance and his achievement as the winner of the best performance of a romantic work in the 3rd round of the competition. Whitehead’s cello teacher, Takao Mizushima, resides in Australia and his lessons take place via Skype, tempered by an eight hour time difference. With such dedication and an obvious passion for his instrument and music, Whitehead is certainly set for a bright future.

Ah-Young Moon, another student of Mario Nell, was declared the most promising candidate aged 10 years or younger. She also won the first prize for the best performance of a South African composition, Makoemazaan by Klatzow. Miss Moon, adorned in a pink ballet-style dress and slippers, immediately stole the audience’s heart and her Chopin Impromptu No. 1 in A-flat, Op. 29 was so moving that I, as did many others in the audience, had to pick at a few stray tears as she struck the final chords. And to think she risks spraining those precious fingers playing netball!

The overall second winner was violinist Neo Motsatse (13), a student of acclaimed violin pedagogue Jack de Wet. Motsatse gave a thrilling performance of three technically demanding works, including three Romanian Folk Dances (1, 5 and 6) by Bela Bartók, as well as the first movement of the GB Viotti Violin Concerto No. 22 in a minor. Although Motsatse claims that her idol is Beyoncé, I have no doubt that if Beyoncé knew what this young virtuoso could do on a violin, the envy would be all on her side.

The third prize went to Simon Fan Wu (13) – another student of Mario Nell. At the beginning of the evening Wu announced that he wants to bring to everyone the happiness that music brings for him. This, Wu certainly did. The audience particularly enjoyed his exciting rendition of Sancan’s nail-biting Toccata.

The first prize, however, belonged to cellist Arjen van Renssen (13) who gave an unrivalled performance in which he showcased his technical skill and diversity as a performer. From the emotive and expressive Après un Rêve by Fauré, to the Spanish sounds of Moszkowski’s Guitarre Op. 45 No. 2, and the utterly enjoyable Scherzo by D van Goens, van Renssen was a true star and the deserving winner of this 25th SAMRO Hubert van der Spuy National Music Competition. What makes this win all the more sweet is that Renssen’s cello teacher, Anzel Gerber, was the first winner of this very competition in 1989.

The SAMRO Hubert van der Spuy National Music Competition has certainly been a catalyst for many young South Africans’ careers and one can only wonder and dream about the bright future that awaits the participants. Many previous winners have since made their mark as excellent classical musicians both locally and abroad, including classical guitarist James Grace who won the competition in 1991 and violinist Zoë Beyers, the 1993 winner. More recently, both Megan-Geoffrey Prins (winner in 2001) and Jan Hugo (winner in 2003) have excelled in the SAMRO Overseas Scholarship Competition and are currently continuing with their music studies abroad.

But becoming a performing artist is not the be-all and end-all of such competitions. I was struck by the number of participants who spoke so highly of their music teachers, and who aspire to become music teachers themselves one day. Teacher Tilla Henkins from the Mangaung String Programme in Bloemfontein was proudly introduced by Ashlin Grobbelaar (14) who won the prize for the most promising development candidate, while teacher Claudine van Breda (who has had no less than 7 students qualifying annually for this competition since it first started in 1989) received a special mention for her continued support and contribution to music education and the SAMRO Hubert van der Spuy National Music Competition in particular. Music teachers are clearly a most admirable species and they can make a real difference in the lives of many children… and adults!

The evening concluded with much laughter, merriments, food and drink. We all felt part of the music family as the godfather of the competition, Hubert van der Spuy, made us all feel at home with his warm and larger-than-life personality. I am already looking forward to next year’s competition and rumour has it that the hopeful participants for 2014 have already started practising.

by Andra le Roux-Kemp

The SAMRO Hubert van der Spuy National Music Competition 2013 was held at the Hugo Lambrechts Auditorium from 16 to 20 September 2013.

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