Saturday, 17 September 2011

Majestic Sounds in the Inner City

Gordon Stewart
Gordon Stewart Gala Organ Concert
St Mary's Cathedral, Johannesburg
Linder Auditorium, Jhb
7 September 2011

I wish I had taken notes at this concert but as I can't find even the programme, I'm going to have to wing it. I have to say, though, that as enjoyable as the music was (a bit more on that later), I was more taken with the history and future of the venue.

The location of the cathedral can be best described as dodgy. When I attended a symphony concert at the cathedral about two years ago, the organisers were clever enough to arrange buses for the (mostly elderly) audience - it's a short but dangerous trip from Parktown to this part of Joburg - and they did so again for this performance. We were directed to the cathedral by security guards whose presence was most welcome but a sad reminder of what life is like in our city.

St Mary's Cathedral in Johannesburg's inner city has a fascinating history. According to an article by Lucille Davie (2007): "The church is famous for its strong ties to the struggle against apartheid. In the 1950s, it was one of the few non-racial churches in downtown Johannesburg, according to Luli Callinicos in The World that Made Mandela. The closing of St Cyprian's a few kilometres away forced the black congregants from that church to join the services at St Mary's. The adjoining Darragh House, which belonged to the church, was a venue for non-racial meetings and in the 1970s and '80s, when Archbishop Desmond Tutu was dean of the church, services in support of the struggle were held."

A history of the cathedral and its congregation would make for intersting reading - are any enthusiastic historians or publishers reading this?

St Mary's Cathedral, Johannesburg
The organ has its own history, too. It was built, of course, in England and apparently delivered by ox wagon in 1929, the year the church was built. I believe the organ builders were Rushworth and Dreaper but don't trust my sketchy memory. The best person to ask would probably be Sidney Place, a big-wig in financial services and part-time organist, who has ensured that the organ has remained in excellent condition in recent years and who worked into the wee hours to make it concert-ready.

As my mom commented, one wonders who will take over this labour of love when Sidney is no longer able. I confess that I wonder about the future of the cathedral, too, although the renovation work is a sign of hope: the gorgeous parquet floors had recently been sanded and revarnished and one of the chapels was closed off by large plastic sheets because of the 'building work'. Sidney promised us that the fine dust on the organ pipes would be cleaned as soon as all the work had been completed. 

 The audience was smaller than I expected and we packed around the console (the contraption that houses the keyboards, pedals, stops and no doubt other things that are unfamiliar to non-players) in an L-shape. Gordon bounced in and gave a short and amusing introduction, then swung his feet over to start pedalling and plugging away at a series of well-chosen fugues, hymns and pieces written specifically for the organ. I particularly enjoyed his choice by Alfred Hollins, an organist and composer who was blind from birth. Hollins's Song of Sunshine was just that - a cheerful, warm piece that was the perfect counter to some of the more sombre fugues. (Hollins also designed the Johannesburg City Hall organ in 1916).

During his interview with Richard Cock on Classic FM's People of Note, Gordon mentioned that the pipe organ is the closest you get to having an entire orchestra in one instrument. I was reminded of that as I watched him co-ordinate the keyboards, stops and pedals - organ-playing is truly an impressive thing. Trying to imitate a Wagnerian orchestra is even more impressive, and the standing ovation for the final piece, an arrangement of Ride of the Valkyries, was well deserved. It is no mean feat to draw out all those leitmotifs without falling off the organ stool, I imagine.

During the short intermission, Mom and I wandered around the cathedral and at one point stopped and looked up at the pipes and mused about the power of this incredible instrument. My word was 'grand' but Mom's is better: the sound is indeed majestic.

As we walked out into the cleaner, quieter streets (service delivery not a problem tonight), I felt grateful for the opportunity to hear such beautiful music in my own city. The cathedral may have a wonderful history but its future is not entirely certain. For now, though, thanks to the efforts of people like Sidney Place, it is still a place of music and that is a wondrous thing. 

Gordon Stewart home page:

Sunday, 11 September 2011

I Like a Gershwin Tune

Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra
Linder Auditorium, Jhb
25 August 2011
Conducted by: Bernhard Gueller
Piano: Nina Schumann

GERSHWIN: An American in Paris
GERSHWIN: Piano Concerto, F major
COPLAND RODEO: Corral Nocturne
BERNSTEIN: West Side Story: Symphonic Dances

I do like a full orchestra and named my cat after Gershwin, so the final programme in the JPO's third season was an inviting one. Nina Schumann was Toto's lecturer and he had informed me a while back that this concert would be right up my alley, so off I went. I booked at the last minute and regretted not inviting my mom, who would have loved the huge (and busy!) percussion section. I get excited when I see a tuba (big sounds!), mom loves tambourines, gongs and xylophones. All were there on Thursday.

An American in Paris was evocative, big band stuff. I'm not sure what a Parisian taxi horn sounds like, but apparently Gershwin included these in the 1928 premier at Carnegie Hall. I felt as if I were suspended above a movie set, watching men with jauntily placed hats promenading along the Seine, women in elegant suits with siren-red lips and loooong cigarette holders sipping cafés, everyone feeling free, adventurous and in the mood for a party. Lots of percussion, trumpet and tuba parts. Happiness!

Then it was Nina's turn. I had seen her play before but not as a soloist. She looked fabulous in an orange dress and sailed through the concerto, a fantastic Gershwin tune. I was sitting in the balcony and sometimes battled to hear her over the orchestra but that's acoustics for you. I don't have the vocabulary or the expertise to describe her performance, suffice to say that I enjoyed it immensely and was amazed at how she pulled off all those tricky chords without huffing and puffing and bashing the piano down (I know some pianists can't help themselves but it's always a bit of a relief when you get someone who doesn't sounds like one of those grunting female tennis players - it's just distracting). Impressive stuff. For her encore, she played Summertime. Like Nessun Dorma and Turandot, I sometimes think this piece should also be played only as part of Porgy and Bess. Nina rescued it from hackneyed jadedness by playing a melodious arrangement that I think did more justice to the piece than the complex 'interpretations' given by some jazz singers. Thank you, Nina!

Copland's Rodeo was not as 'yee-ha!' as I thought it would be - in fact, compared to the Gerswhin pieces it was quite, er... laid-back? (Note to self: must learn some new adjectives for this blog). A pretty piece, actually. (Really must learn new adjectives!).

The Symphonic Dances had a classical pops feel to them but I suppose that's just because I know some of the songs so well. And we do like to see our orchestra having fun, clicking their fingers and shouting 'Mambo!' So it was a good choice to end the season with. The American in Joburg sitting next to me was delighted when the 'Mambo' section was played as an encore and shouted out enthusiastically when Bernhard Gueller, the conductor, allowed some audience participation. I wasn't sure if I should shout 'mambo' or 'rumble' (I don't know all the songs from the musical!) so I just smiled at him and enjoyed the moment.

God bless America!


Nina and her husband, Luis Magalhães, have released some wonderful CDs under their label TwoPianists Records. I love the cover designs, too. Have a look at

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Brilliant Buskaid!

Buskaid Soweto String Ensemble
Linder Auditorium, Jhb
27 August 2011
Directed by: Rosemary Nalden

Once again, the performance of this string ensemble tugged at my heartstrings.

The concert opened with the beginners sitting on little plastic chairs playing their miniature instruments under the watchful eye of their teachers, themselves 'graduates' of Buskaid. Accessible Snob is no stranger to the pieces selected to show off the potential talent of the 'baby class', having heard both Chocolate Treats and The Song of the Marching Men performed live in Milton Keynes, England in December 2010 by the lovely Grace Farrow, Accessible Snob's niece and beginner cellist. Not even five minutes into the concert and the tears were already welling up!

Rosemary Nalden, the driving force behind Buskaid, put together a wonderful programme. I was heartened to read in the programme notes that so many international musicians, conductors and composers had been so willing to find and send her music, including Karl Jenkins who sent a set of parts for Sarikiz which is now on permananent loan to Buskaid. Mr Jenkins, you did a good thing and Kabelo Monnathebe more than did justice to this piece, the third on the programme.

This was followed by Night Music on the Streets of Madrid by Luigi Boccherini. Apparently Mr Boccherini did not think the piece would have much significance beyond Spain, yet as Rosemary pointed out in her introduction, Johannesburg is no stranger to some of the tableaux depicted in the various movements. Besides playing the piece with aplomb, the musicians also acted out the scenes - for example, tilting their heads back and forth to depict prayer during Il Rosario ('The Rosary') and chasing each other around the stage for Passacalle ('The Passacaglia of the Street Singers') and even at one point walking off the stage and back on again. I think we all agree wtih Rosemary when she writes: 'I have enormous admiration for the way in which the Buskaid musicians are able to memorise music, play it, and simultaneously act and dance. This is not what audiences generally expect to see when they come to a serious classical music concert!' Well, it is what we have come to expect from Buskaid and it is one of the reasons we enjoy their concerts so much.

The second half of the programme featured some lovely choices: I particularly enjoyed Miniatures - Cavatina (Dvořák) and From Jewish Life - Prayer (Ernest Bloch), which had Gilbert Tsoke creating a melancholic mood on the cello.

These were followed by two pieces with vocal accompaniment - Georgia on My Mind and Stand By Me. Singers Cecelia Manyama and Mathapelo Matabane were lovely but either lacked the confidence to sing loudly or were thwarted somewhat by the sound system. A pity, but we enjoyed them nonetheless.

No Buskaid concert is complete without the foot-stompingly fun kwela and gospel section at the end. Here, the musicians relax and have fun with the music. Kabelo's 'wolf whistle' sound on the violin was a crowd-pleaser as was the infectious energy and vitality of the players. So infectious that some members of the audience were more than happy to be called out to join the players and dance on stage.

From tears to joy: I left the concert feeling uplifted, inspired, hopeful and once again utterly in awe of the transcendent power of music.

Bravo, Buskaid and ENCORE!

The concert was recorded, so look out for the CD. Despite the fact that Rosemary pleaded with the audience to remain as quiet as possible, we had the misfortune of sitting in front of a mad old bat who thought it was perfectly fine to talk at regular intervals, despite a number of increasingly dirty looks from other members of the audience. And some idiot's cell phone rang during the performance, too. Honestly, people. Show some respect!

Soweto Strings (DVD)
Please visit the Buskaid Home Page and buy something or make a donation to this wonderful ensemble. I haven't seen the documentary Soweto Strings but imagine it would be a good buy for anyone wanting to know more about the project.

Rocking with Zoid

Karen Zoid Concert
Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens, Jhb
Sunday, 21 August 2011

I love Karen Zoid's rock-chick name but confess to being unfamiliar with her music. However, after Toto raved about Karen's gig at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town in July (which opened this 10 Year Anniversary Tour), I decided that a ticket to one of her Gauteng shows would be just for my friend Jumari's birthday.

Jumari is my NBF at work. We bonded over my dreadful Afrikaans accent during some boring work-related conversation and since then have fought the tedium by sending each other ridiculous emails in which we mash up sentences using English, Afrikaans and a smattering of French. She's alternative without trying to be, really smart and incredibly funny. Who better to help initiate me into the world of Afrikaner rock?

That would be Johan. Another one. He's a huge KZ fan and joined the two of us at the bot gardens for a bland lunch and a few drinks before the concert, which started at 3pm. The restuarant staff were happy to sell us beers which were thoughtfully packaged in a plastic bag with a generous serving of ice. Fantastic.

Having just come out of the most dreadful cold snap all winter, we were thrilled with the relatively warm day. Perfect weather for an outdoor concert - not so hot that your beers are lukewarm after a few minutes and you're worrying about your t-shirt tan, not so cold that you wish you could go back to your car. Goldilocks weather - just right. Although the grass was dry and brown and every breath filled with the dust that characterises this time of year in Joburg, we could sense the promise of spring.

Karen arrived on stage, dressed in black with a brightly coloured, crocheted scarf, to appreciative cheers and opened with - of course - Afrikaners is Plesierig. I'm not sure what I expected, really, but I didn't expect her to be so personable. She wasn't performing as much as she was playing, chatting between songs in her down-to-earth way then rocking out with her great (and surprisingly catchy) tunes and clever, toaaadly Saffrican lyrics (her sister lives in Potchefstroom and everybody there smokes boom). Retail Therapy is hilarious, all the more so because of the different local accents Karen sings in. Her songs are unashamedly South African but not in a tired, clichéd sense. They're fresh, funny and funky. I loved them.

At one point, she invited kids onto the stage to participate in a dance competition. She was great with them - no rock-star diva antics here. The crowd was delighted when one little guy when absolutely mad, wiggling and shaking his little body as if there was no tomorrow. Who says white boys can't dance? This chap would prove you wrong!

I wish I could remember the set list and more of the songs (apologies to the true fans). What I do remember is lots of colour - in her scarf, her voice, her music and mostly in the stories she tells through her songs. I could see quite vividly people riding in taxis, going shopping, dancing, arguing, trying to figure out their place in the world. 

Sadly, Karen's sales team did not accept credit cards and I had very little cash on me so, as new fan, I could not buy any of her CDs. However, that is easily rectified.

To finish of the plesierigheid, we had drinks at the local Dros. As Jumari would say: Ich bien Afrikaner now.

Karen Zoid Home Page

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Johan Botha Gala Concert - Johannesburg

Johan Botha Gala Concert
Montecasino Theatre, Fourways, Jhb
20 August 2011
Presented by Cape Town Opera
Conductor: Sebastian Lang-Lessing
KZN Philharmonic Orchestra

This is the second time I have seen Johan Botha performing in a gala concert and the second time that his appearance has made me feel a little uncomfortable. His goatee, belly, and choice of baggy, black clothing remind me of my ex-husband.

However, my ex did not have a mullet.  Johan has a spectacularly dreadful mullet that would not be amiss in Boksburg circa 1982 - or perhaps even now.
I'm sorry but there is no excuse for this . The man lives in Vienna now. Have you ever seen a European with a mullet? Maybe there is a dedicated web site for this sort of thing but I am not going to try and find it. Opera fans already have to stretch their imaginations beyond reasonable limits when it comes to believing that large, middle-aged singers are in fact young, gorgeous men and women who fall in love at first sight. To their credit, most of them manage to convince us. Without the context, costumes and scenery of an opera, though, it's that much more difficult. A better choice of hairstyle would be helpful to audiences in a gala concert setting.

Bad coiffure aside, the man can sing, and the concert was a treat. It was being filmed for Kyknet, an Afrikaans TV channel, so I was glad I'd worn something sparkly and piled on the make-up. 

One of the attractions of a gala concert is getting to hear pieces that are unfamiliar and in that regard, although the programme was a bit heavy on the Italian composers, this concert did not disappoint. I particularly enjoyed Scena del Frate from Don Carlo - the duet parts with Aubrey Loedwyk were lovely. The musically named Violina Anguelov did some amazing trilly twiddly bits in Canzone del velo, from the same opera. She also looked fantastic - great dress, great hair. The other sopranos did well enough to keep up with Johan and belt out their solos, but they did falter here and there and their voices didn't always carry well. Violina was impressive throughout.
Of course, no gala concert is complete without a few favourites and the overplayed aria of choice for this one was Nessun Dorma, which had the audience cheering enthusiastically as the last vincerò floated out over our heads. It's a beautiful aria and Johan's singing certainly did it justice, but it has been done to death by every poperatic star and boy band and I think it we need to rescue it by returning it to Turandot and banning it from being sung anywhere else. At least for a few years.

The Léhar selection provided a lively end to a most enjoyable concert. Johan's choice of encore was an excellent one:
Heimwee, an Afrikaans song so full of yearning that the elderly Afrikaans chap sitting next to me cried a little, which I found touching. It was a beautiful rendition and proved that Afrikaners can be just as treurig as plesierig.

I became a little treurig myself when Nessun Dorma was trotted out again; Mom and I had a bit of a giggle about it but stood up to applaud anyway.

We might be on TV, after all.

About this blog

My love of classical music and the performing arts started around the age of five, the age at which I started ballet lessons. I used to wear one of my grandmother's old nightgowns (my ballet frock) and my ballet shoes, and twirl around on the raised floor of our dining room (my stage). My other grandmother made me a proper ballet outfit for Christmas one year - a pink tutu, tulle headband, and wand. An indulgent adult would play ballet music for me and off I would go into my own little world.

I remember the cover of my favourite LP at the time - a black and white photograph of a young von Karajan conducting Coppelia, as proclaimed by the distinctive yellow logo of Deutsche Grammophon.

Ballet stopped when high school started and was replaced by piano lessons with Mrs Hennig, a sweet old lady who thought I had great potential on account of my large hands and long fingers (I can just reach a note higher than an octave). However, I had neither the patience nor the discipline for the many hours of practice required to be a competent pianist, although, unlike ballet, I enjoyed it immensely nonetheless.

It was my mother who was most influential in developing my love for, and appreciation of, the classical performing arts. I was taken to the ballet at a young age and later, in my university years (the early 1990s), she bought us season tickets for what was then the National Symphony Orchestra.

The NSO's concerts were held in the Johannesburg City Hall. I developed a crush on a tall, dark cello player and a lifeling love for live performances of classical music. Sometimes, Mom and I would have dinner at the swanky La Bastille restaurant (starched napkins, silver cutlery) to celebrate the beginning of a season. She had a greater appreciation of lesser-known works and to this day goes mad for pieces that include lots of percussion. I preferred the 'classic classics' and to this day go mad for anything that includes a tuba.

Sadly, the City Hall became a dodgy venue on account of Joburg becoming a dodgy city. Mom's car was stolen one night during a concert and then the NSO disbanded and that was the end of that era.

Now, nearly twenty years later, I consider myself privileged to live in a city where classical music is very much alive and well, and to have two friends who have studied music and graciously contribute to my ongoing education about music, composers and performers. This blog, then, is my account of the performances I attend.