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Review: Bach and Friends on Vacation in Darling

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The small town of DarliDarling Music Experience Posterng (about an hour’s drive from Cape Town) is not only home to the (in)famous first lady of South Africa Evita Bezuidenhout but is also, according to the organisers of the seventh Darling Music Experience, the favourite holiday destination of German composer Johann Sebastian Bach.

The Darling Music Experience is the brainchild of conductor David Tidboald, composer Hendrik Hofmeyr, and music enthusiast Alfred Legner. It was launched in 2006 with the aim to make classical music more accessible to people living on the West Coast by organising small concerts in the rural setting of Darling.

The theme of this seventh Darling Music Experience was Bach and Friends on Vacation in Darling. The programme extended over two weekends and offered a variety of performances by South African artists as well as international maestros including Maurice Steger (recorder), Lena Seidl (piano) and Uwe Grosser (lute). The venues for these performances were furthermore carefully selected in order to give concertgoers a glimpse of what Darling and surrounds has to offer. West Coast hospitality, good music and the delight of discovering the hidden gems of small town life promised to be a winning combination.

My own darling and I headed Darling-wards to sample a day of this festival. Our first stop was the Groote Post Vineyards about 10 kilometres outside the village. Groote Post is not only one of the oldest farms in South Africa, but its wines have won numerous awards both locally and internationally. It is probably best known for its Shiraz, a well-rounded wine with a nose that reminds of butter popcorn.

Wine maker Lukas Wentzel first demonstrated, to our small but enthusiastic group, the laborious process behind the making of the farm’s own sparkling wine, the Groote Post Old Man’s Sparkle Méthode Cap Classique Brut Rosé. Thereafter leading South African classical guitarist James Grace gave a memorable recital in the Vineyard’s restaurant, also known as Hilda’s Kitchen. Grace took the audience on a whirlwind tour with music from Brazil, Paraguay, Spain and (true to the theme of the festival) Germany. The audience sat mesmerised on their riempiestoele surrounded by Old Cape Dutch cupboards and display cases while sipping on Groote Post wines.

The perfect trio of good food, good wine (the Groote Post Reserve Chardonnay) and excellent company at Hilda’s Kitchen were almost responsible for us missing our second concert for the day at the Darling NG Church. A reasonable number of people turned up to hear the Austrian trombone duo and local Eben Waagenstrom at the organ.

Maybe it was the wine or maybe it was the expectation – in a sacred venue – of hearing hallowed music, but it seemed to me that the Austrian trombone duo, Christian Radovan and Alois Eberl, committed what can only be described as a musical sin. The standard of playing was akin to that of an inexperienced amateur group and made no musical sense whatsoever. The duo were described as combining African rhythmic elements with Austrian folk music and jazz-like improvisations, but for me this ambitious amalgamation of different styles simply did not work and the basic principles of performance practice were utterly overlooked. Sloppy tonguing and the total disregard for phrase endings, for example, left my hairs standing on end.

The afternoon was saved, however, by local Eben Waagenstrom. This young organist gave a technically and musically superb performance in true Bach style. His interpretation of Bach’s Chorale Prelude on An Wasserflüssen Babylon (BWV 653) and Pièce d’Orgue (BWV 572) deserves special mention. As the late afternoon sun streamed through the blue stained windows Waagenstrom managed to capture that sacrosanct atmosphere typical of baroque organ music as his audience held its collective breath. I am looking forward to hearing more of this young organist as his technique and interpretation continue to mature.

The day was concluded with the highlight of the festival: Swiss recorder virtuoso Maurice Steger and James Grace at the charming Darling Presbyterian Church. For most the idea of a recorder virtuoso may sound a bit ridiculous, as our frame of reference with regard to recorder music is usually limited to the sweet but deafening performances of small children at school concerts. Yet, the recorder was a very popular instrument during the baroque era and while it has maintained its popularity in the concert halls of Europe, a small but avid support for recorder music is also present in South Africa. (The two South African recorder virtuosos that are probably best known (here and abroad) are Stefan Temmingh and Carin van Heerden. Rumour has it that Van Heerden will be performing in South Africa later this year.)

Steger, manned with a collection of wooden recorders, gave a terrific performance. It was evident from the hearty applause and sounds of amazement and approval coming from the church pews that Steger’s warm personality and ardent playing had won over the audience. While the programme consisted mainly of baroque music (1650 – 1750) the audience especially enjoyed the interludes of Swiss folk music dating from 1804. Different styles of tonguing and interpretation showcased not only Steger’s skill, but also the full potential of this ancient instrument dating from 1315.

It would be a case of splitting hairs to fault the superb performance of Steger and Grace but, I would have preferred a more crisp articulation of the Allemanda from Arcangelo Correlli’s Sonata No 8 op 5 in E minor. And, a harpsichord accompaniment for some works would have given the concert an even more authentic feel. It was also clear that while the virtuoso playing of Steger in the Allegro Assai of Giuseppe Sammartini’s Sonata in G major for recorder and bassa continuo was impressive, that it was a challenge for Grace to keep up the extreme tempo.

After a long day of music, food and wine a few festival enthusiasts were still outside the Presbyterian Church chatting away under the trees as lights were being switched off and doors slammed shut. But Bach and friends had still not had enough, and we were all heartily invited to join Maurice Steger and some of the organisers and sponsors at Cafe Mosaic for a late night snack…and some more wine. What a wonderful day with my Darling, Bach, and Bacchus!

Andra le Roux-Kemp

Darling Music Experience: Bach and Friends on Vacation in Darling, 3 – 12 February 2012 

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