Review: Stellenbosch International Chamber Music Festival– Faculty Concert II

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SICMFThe way in which we listen to classical music has certainly changed. A lot. Today, there is absolutely no reason not to ‘attend’ a performance by world-class musicians, in the most prestigious of concert halls, the world over. And no, you need not be an international jetsetter or a world-class performer yourself in order to achieve this.

The virtual concert hall, courtesy of the latest innovations in live streaming, now makes it possible for music-loving armchair travellers to turn up to some of the world’s most anticipated classical music events.  And, seeing that I was missing out on yet another year of the Stellenbosch International Chamber Music Festival, this was exactly what I did.

I did not need to buy a ticket, get dressed, or go through the usual social conventions of concert-going. Instead, I got comfy with my good friend Mac (the Apple product not the person) in a dingy residence room and with the beautiful view of the Budapest skyline from my window. In a rebellious attempt to truly break away from all the traditional concert conventions I also manned myself with a bowl of take-away Gulyás and a bottle of Tokaji. (As a courtesy to my current hosts I will not review the wine or compare it to the usual offerings from the hills of Stellenbosch served in the Endler Hall. Let’s just say virtual wine tasting and consumption is still a long way off…)

The programme for the evening was exciting and unconventional, and the line-up of artists impressive. First, was a piano trio (No. 6 in E flat major, Op. 93) by Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778 – 1837) with Antonio Pompa-Baldi (piano), Patrick Goodwin (violin) and Peter Martens (cello). Pompa-Baldi can be described as a Hummel-expert of sorts, having recorded two volumes of Hummel’s piano sonatas with Centaur Records. And, flanked by Martens and Goodwin, the audience was definitely in for a treat. It should be noted that the piano on stage for the evening was the newest addition to the Stellenbosch Conservertoire’s collection of concert pianos. It was presented to the Chair of the Department of Music by the regional representative of Yamaha South Africa as well as one of Stellenbosch’s greatest supporters of classical music, Mr Heuer from Musikhaus W Heuer. This beautiful instrument will eventually be used in the Endler’s smaller sister hall – the Fismer Hall.

The trio gave a powerful performance, showcasing Hummel’s bridge-over style from Mozartian classicism to Beethoven early Romanticism. The virtuoso piano runs, a lyrical violin section and an engaging cello in the first movement (Allegro con moto) swept the audience back in time and space to Vienna (not that far from where I was sitting) and the end of the Viennese classical style. The immaculate ensemble playing continued in the second movement with an intimate piano theme taking the lead and sympathetic support offered by the violin and cello. The work concluded with an exultant Rondo, Allegro con brio that hinted of the early Romantic style. I would personally have liked the final movement to be more fiery and assertive – it is marked con brio after all – but the taxing demands of the score was at times evident in the trio’s playing.

Listening to the next work on the programme, a suite by Nico Muhly for oboe (James Austin Smith), piano (Pieter Grobler), violins (Suzanne Martens and Patrick Goodwin), viola (Emile de Roubaix) and cello (Peter Martens), I was reminded of something that I recently read on social media. It was the lament of a young South African composer who complained that established performers in South Africa do not give enough consideration to contemporary composers and their work. Whether this is indeed the case is debatable.  What is certain, however, is that this critique is definitely not applicable to the artists of the Stellenbosch International Chamber Music Festival. Almost a third of the works performed at this year’s SICMF are from contemporary composers. And the remainder of the programme shows a careful selection of works from the ‘old’ masters such as Rachmaninoff and Brahms  to our very own South African crop, including the likes of P.L. van Dijk (born in The Netherlands but settled in South Africa) and Kevin Volans.

Composer Nico Muhly was born in Vermont, USA and graduated from Julliard in 2004. He has since composed a wide range of works including an opera, Two Boys, a number of film scores and works commissioned for ballet groups including The Royal Ballet and New York City Ballet. The performance of his Suite from the 2008 film The Reader was a South African premiere. In fact, prior to the South African performance it was only performed in Germany once, and is yet to be performed in the United States. The audience was treated with a most vivid and nuanced of performances. Indeed, the different melodies flowed and developed and enchanted – something for each and everyone with a keen ear and a mind’s eye.

By this time my Gulyás was befejezett (finished) and I decided to have another glass of Tokaji. Although I enjoyed listening to the concert in the comfort of my own room – the sound and image quality was excellent – I still missed the usual hustle-and-bustle of the Endler’s foyer, the selection of South African wines to choose from, and the opportunity to share impressions about the concert with other patrons.

The evening concluded with a composition by Ludwig Thuille (1861 – 1907), a late-Romantic German composer and contemporary of Johann Strauss and Josef Rheinberger. Thuille’s sextet is probably the best known of all his chamber music works and it is said that it took him a total of two years to complete. The sextet has a unique instrumentation that includes a piano (Pieter Grobler), flute (Demarre McGill), oboe (James Austin Smith), clarinet (Ferdinand Steiner), bassoon (Lecolion Washington) and French horn (Abel Pereira). While this instrumentation ensemble gives a sense of Wagnerian colour, it also necessitates extreme sensitivity and balance from the performers.

One of the main criticisms against Thuille’s work is that it is endlessly long and “…that musicians are faced with such a labyrinth of harmonic changes, unclear phrasing, and tensionless melodies that it becomes impossible for even the finest of musicians to find a way out”. But James North’s (2010) scathing critique of Thuille’s compositional technique and abilities was rendered completely irrelevant by the immaculate performance by the SICMF artists.  The musicians gave a convincing and grandiose performance that brought the work to life.

In the first and second movement of the sextet, respectively marked Allegro moderato and Larghetto, the horn takes the lead and introduces the melody.  In both these movements Grobler’s playing was involved and sensitive and the winds triumphant and majestic. The third movement is a Gavotte, Andante-quasi allegretto but curiously does not conjure up the images of a lively French folk dance but rather a strange, haunting dance in a fantastical forest. The finale, Vivace was intense and demanding – a fitting end to an exciting programme.

As we say here in Hungary: Nagyszerű!

by Andra le Roux-Kemp

The Stellenbosch International Chamber Music Festival, Faculty Concert II, was held at the Endler Hall, Stellenbosch on 6 July 2013.

The evening concerts of the 10th annual Stellenbosch International Chamber Music Festival (SICMF) are held at the Endler Hall, Stellenbosch from 5 to 14 July 2013 at 8pm. For the live streaming of the evening concerts visit: http://www.sicmf.co.za/multimedia/streaming.html.

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