Review: 4th Stellenbosch International Piano Symposium

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Stellenbosch International Piano SymposiumThe bi-annual international piano symposium is always a highlight of the Stellenbosch music calendar, especially for South African pianists and piano enthusiasts. There is really nothing more lavish than taking a time-out in order to devote a whole week to celebrating the art of this notable instrument together with other piano-crazy individuals from across South Africa.

Approximately 37 participants and 30 observers (including pianists, piano teachers and piano aficionados), joined high-profile international pianists – Aviram Reichert, Antonio Pompa-Baldi and Pallavi Mahidhara – together with foremost South African pianists for a week of lectures, master classes and concerts. A true sense of amity quickly developed amongst everyone involved as we mastered (or at least tried to master) the art of piano playing.

The symposium got off to a nerve wracking yet exhilarating start as some of the participants in the symposium competed for the coveted first place in the Hennie Joubert Piano Competition. This bi-annual competition was again in full swing after approximately 20 years of silence, as hopeful under eighteens played off. The preliminary rounds took place on Saturday 24 and Sunday 25 March and five finalists were selected to perform with the Stellenbosch Symphony Orchestra on 28 March.

The finalists were: Roelof Temmingh (15) from Stellenbosch, Lezanti van Sittert (17) fromPretoria, Caryn Reed (17) fromPretoria, Sulayman Human (18) from Stellenbosch and Rashalia Pather (17) fromDurban. The esteemed panel of judges included Prof Aviram Reichert from Seoul National University in Korea along with some of South Africa’s most renowned pianists: Prof Albie van Schalkwyk, Mr Bennie van Eeden, Mr John Roos and Prof Malcolm Nay.

All the finalists gave a stellar performance but it was young Sulayman Human, a second year student of Nina Schumann and Luis Magalhães, who scooped the top prize. Human only started playing the piano at the age of 12 – relatively late, many feel, to take up this temperamental instrument. However, this young pianist is certainly not allowing tradition to define the parameters of his success. In 2010 Human became the first school pupil (he was in grade 12) to win the Lionel Bowman competition for the best performance of a Beethoven Sonata. In the same year he also came first in the KKNK Remgro bursary competition.

A diverse and exciting programme of evening concerts by members of the symposium faculty followed an intensive programme of lectures, (nail-biting) lunch hour concerts by the student participants and master classes. Some of the lunch hour concerts were especially demanding as student participants had to give their best performance on an upright piano, loaded onto a bakkie, whilst being driven around the picturesque streets of Stellenbosch. This initiative certainly gave new meaning to the idea of taking music to the people.

But back on solid ground and performing on the Bösendorfer concert grand,  Aviram Reichert, a Steinway & Sons artist, gave the first evening concert of this fourth piano symposium. Having won several major competitions in the Far East, Franceand Germany, including the bronze medal at the 10th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, expectations ran high. But Reichert did not disappoint and true to his reputation, set the bar high for the remainder of the evening concerts.

The highlight of the concert programme, however, was the much anticipated and sold out Piano Extravaganza evening which took place on Friday 30 March. The Piano Extravaganza concert has become a hallmark event of the Stellenbosch International Piano Symposium; an event in which the limits of piano ensemble playing is stretched to the bounds. The Piano Extravaganza of this 4th Piano Symposium was also noteworthy for two further reasons: It was the first event in the Endler Hall to be streamed live to audiences across the world and, the Department of Music made use of this opportunity to announce the donation of a number of refurbished upright pianos to deserving community projects and organisations.

Bennie van Eeden (StellenboschUniversity) and Liezl-Maret Jacobs (Universityof Kwazulu-Natal) opened this monumental concert with Poulenc’s Sonata For Four Hands (one piano). Thereafter Rachmaninoff’s Two Pieces for Piano (6 hands, one piano) was performed by Catherine Foxcroft (Rhodes University), Erika Bothma (NelsonMandelaMetropolitanUniversity) and Ruth Goveia (University of Pretoria).

Yet, as the number of pianos on stage increased, the bounds of piano playing also reached new heights. Chabrier’s Espana for three pianos was performed by Albie van Schalkwyk (University of Cape Town), Francois du Toit (University of Cape Town) and Liezl-Maret Jacobs (University of Kwazulu-Natal) and the piano department of Stellenbosch University wooed audience members with Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture for four pianos.

The audience sat in stunned silence as Nina Schumann and Luis Magalhães (both from StellenboschUniversity) gave a heartfelt and convincing performance of Rzewski’s Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues for Two Pianos. This work depicts the horrifying and mind-numbing working conditions of the many workers labouring the North American Cotton Mills. The pianists mimicked the sound of the machinery at the Mills on the low registers of the piano using fingers, hands, palms, front arms and even elbows to create a haunting resonance of sound.

The concert concluded with eleven faculty members joining forces for Rossini’s William Tell Overture for 10 pianos and cymbals. The audience enjoyed this tongue-in-cheek transcription of Rossini’s famous work just as much as the pianists enjoyed the over-the-top piano binge. The star of this performance was, however the cymbal player, Prof. Joseph Stanford from the University of Pretoria. More known for his achievements as piano pedagogue he certainly made his mark as percussionist on the cymbals as he struck (or rather punished) the copper plates with offhand blows!

The evening concerts concluded with a performance by Antonio Pompa-Baldi, an artist that the student participants and observers came to know as a passionate Italian who detests indifferent piano playing. He is a prolific recording artist who has toured extensively, won numerous prizes, including the 2001 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, and who is a regular adjudicator at various international piano competitions. Pompa-Baldi gave an overwhelming and virtuoso performance, a fitting end to a wonderful week of exploring piano music and technique.

Whether you only attended and enjoyed the evening concerts, or were more actively involved with the lectures and master classes, this event was certainly a treat for all. I am not alone in already anticipating the 5th symposium scheduled for 2014.

Andra le Roux-Kemp

The 4th Stellenbosch International Piano Symposium was held at the Stellenbosch Conservatorium, 24 – 31 March 2012.

If you liked this review, read our review of the Stellenbosch University Symphony Orchestra at Endler Hall.

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