South Africa is spoiled with a multitude of music and arts festivals covering almost every genre and sub-culture. Nonetheless, a festival focused not just on western classical music, but on chamber music specifically, is delving into a world rarely conceived in the consciousness of many South Africans.
Now in its 11th year, the Stellenbosch International Chamber Music Festival (SICMF) has become a renowned festival the world over, attracting performing artists and composers of the highest calibre, to promote and raise the bar on art music.
The festival is hosted by the Stellenbosch University Konservatorium over 10 days with a schedule including ensemble coaching, master classes, student concerts, and gala events featuring the Festival Symphony Orchestra and Festival Concert Orchestra. Every evening the performing professionals of the faculty display their artistic talents and emotional depth in concerts showcasing works for a variety of instrumentation.
At the pre concert talks any two faculty members sit and discuss one another’s career and influences. On 7 July Paul Hanmer (composer/pianist) and Leon Bosch (double bassist) touched on elements of musical philosophy, family, and life growing up in Cape Town during the Apartheid era. Hanmer spoke humbly of his musical upbringing, his first music lessons with Michael Blake and the turning point which led him to dedicate his life to music. They explored in depth the musicians and organisations which inspired and help to carve the musical path which they are each pursuing. They also discussed Hanmer’s new composition to be premiered that evening; ‘Quintet for the End of the Line’, examining the influences of the piece as well as the difficult instrumentation and the compositional structure.
Sure enough ‘Quintet for the End of the Line’ was the highlight of the evening concert on 7 July. This was the world premier for this much anticipated composition which was commissioned by double bass virtuoso Leon Bosch and written for the not too common instrumentation of violin, viola, cello, bass and piano. It is a compostion overflowing with references from musical styles, personal experience, lasting friendships and the never-ending need for artistic discovery. The first movement opens with a simple theme on the bass which stays central throughout the fabric of the work. The harmonies are rich, warm and wrapped in emotion, portraying the connection with a friendship of a person who once walked the earth. The second movement is more haunting, solemn in nature but with glimmers of hope, in memory of the life of legendary singer Busi Mhlongo. The final movement is filled with youthful energy, humour and reverence: a brilliant celebratory end to a superbly written work.
Preceding ‘Quintet for the End of the Line’ was ‘Recreation’ by P. Gabaye for a quartet of trumpet, horn, trombone and piano. This 20th century work has a Leonard Bernstein like sound, with intense angular rhythms, theatrical themes and smooth, lyrical voices from each of the instruments. The tone colours are rich and varied and the march like quality of the third movement creates a welcome contrast. It was an overall well balanced, rounded and secure performance by the musicians.
The second half of the faculty concert featured a 6 part work by Sergei Prokofiev called ‘Quintet in G minor Opus 39’, a.k.a ‘The Trapeze’. A programmatic work, it utilises different instrumental timbres to depict various amusing characters in a dysfunctional circus with, for this performance, Daniel Rowland on violin, Gareth Lubbe on viola, Leon Bosch on double bass, Ferdinand Steiner on clarinet and James Austin Smith leading the ensemble on the oboe. The tone was set for a very humorous but exciting and technically brilliant performance. Syncopated rhythms popped and jumped about with the different voices, harmonising and phrasing with witty but controlled exuberance. The tonal textures flowed effortlessly from one mood to the next, with the musicians one moment consumed in chaotic, high energy call and response phrases, and the next in a subtle haunting mood, executed excellently with cleverly placed dynamics. Even with the musical antics, the ear still responded to the beautifully lyrical melodies and the contrasting sections demonstrating each musician’s total mastery of his instrument.
The SICMF does not just nurture young talent and grow audiences, but also creates a platform for artists from different cultures and influences to collaborate in an environment where friendships are made and given the freedom to express their humanity through a unified medium. This festival should be on every classical music lover’s yearly calendar.
Gareth Harvey is a performing saxophonist and music solutions manager at Octave Leap Music.
The Stellenbosch International Chamber Music ran 4 to 13 July 2014.