An alleyway in 1700 Andalusia, southern Spain reveals a small fire poised on cobblestone. Its flames cast shadows of a rich history across the skin of the dancing gypsy woman as her heart bleeds poetry across her lips and the pelting drums break open the night sky.
OK, so it was more like pelting rain as, with Siberianesque bravery, I tracked my way through to my rendezvous with Soul of Fire. And it wasn’t southern Spain but the northern suburbs of Cape Town.
Die Boer Restaurant, on the second floor of a building in the heart of Durbanville is best known for performances from the likes of Chris Chameleon and Arno Carstens, but cast an eye down their well conquered list, and the range of performers is surprisingly broad.
The rustic-inspired room – with its traditional wooden beams and walls replete with a self-satisfied red – is an intimate venue with a rather familiar, soft, settling ambience. Hand-written on reserved wall-space, my eyes traced the ‘Blanc de Blanc’ and ‘Malva pudding’ and a homely sigh escaped from me in a way that other patrons of guilty-pleasure will understand.
But I was here primarily for the music: a performance from two women who have ignited a movement in modern musical tapestry.
If you have happened upon the term virtuoso before, I suggest you fold it away neatly when in the “closet blues” presence of duo Kathleen Tagg and Zanne Stapelberg. Words will fall short.
With instrumental support from violinist Piet de Beer, double bassist Charles Lazar and percussionist Joseph Avergel, Soul of Fire introduces classical and folk-laden Spanish music to Latin American pieces that tread across notes and undertones of newly formed arrangements in South American subculture. The final result took nearly two years to achieve, not least due to Tagg and Stapleberg’s determination to ingrain personal values. It now runs rich with the shared passion of these two artists.
Since receiving her Doctorate at the Manhattan School of Music, the New York-based South African-born pianist Kathleen Tagg has since basked in an international audience, with a highlight being a critically acclaimed performance in New York’s Carnegie Hall.
Similarly, Cape Town-born soprano Zanne Stapelberg is achievement personified. She graduated cum laude from the Conservatoire of Stellenbosch University, and having been a member of Cape Town Opera and collaborated with Hendrik Hofmeyr on his Byzantium for Soprano and Orchestra, her voice has become a valued branch in South African opera history.
But despite their highbrow training, these two exude an invigorating warmth to their audience. The Spanish Folk tune ‘A la Nanita Nana’ was an elegant introduction to the accentuated soprano quality of Stapelberg’s voice. Throughout the performance she infused spoken dialogue and dance, and with her gypsy-inspired attire, suave Flamenco movements, and a cadence of gypsy palmas (hand clapping) her love for the binding genre of zarzuela came to light.
I had the privilege of a close-up view as Tagg made her first descent on the ivory keys. With a graceful intensity caressing her expressions, her playing was lighter than a breeze; it seemed she did not touch the keys so much as command them. With each elevation of her hands, she’d draw the notes along, suspending them into the air as though to be preserved for another era entirely.
“I get very jealous of all these other instruments on the stage” laughed Tagg, eyeing the double bass. “Don’t be alarmed if I put my hands inside (the piano) and start to do strange things.” And so she does. In her approach to de Falla’s ‘Nana’ she simply reaches inside the piano and starts plucking at its heartstrings, yet doing it so naturally one would think it an essential part.
As an audience we were spiralled into a corner seat of a 1920’s café cantante, a gypsy-dominated performance venue where Flamenco truly took root. Of the twelve pieces performed, Tagg had reworked and arranged no less than eight. My favourite was perhaps the mellifluous ‘Quiero ser tu Sombra’ – a little Argentinean folk song-turned-showpiece to which Piet de Beer gave an astounding prelude. The pieces by Astor Piazzolla – the composer most associated with the new tango of the 20th century – were particularly impressive, with a heightened synthesis of the group: a vocal timbre that created and stirred up emotion, a pianist whose skill eased it with grace, a violinist prolonging the process in perfect pitch and the deepening of rhythm by bass and percussion. Bravo.
It was fitting that they should conclude their performance (and reluctantly the last session of their short tour) on the same note that had got them started in this project, the ‘Milonga’ of Astor Piazzolla’s Tango Opera: ‘Maria de Buenos Aires’ – “one of the most beautiful pieces ever written”, according to Stapelberg, and the very inspiration that gave rise to this untamable, and unforgettable, venture.
Kathleen Tagg and Zanne Stapelberg performed Soul of Fire on 15 July at Die Boer Restaurant in Durbanville. The album is due to be launched in December 2012 at the Fugard Theatre.