He who turns battered pianos into Formula Ones


TEA with Gershwin: Pianist Charl du Plessis in conversation. Photograph by Robyn Sassen.

HE’S DEVASTATINGLY SUAVE but quietly spoken; he’s funny and earnest at the same time and when he sits at the piano, the world becomes a friendlier place. Meet Charl du Plessis who performs a week-long season at Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton, this week. This Steinway artist who performs with Nataniël and has his own trio is the magic ingredient in any music line up. He recently chatted to My View about the magic of Gershwin, the vagaries of self-promotion and the wonder of straddling jazz and classics, to say nothing of the treasures you can find in a piano’s belly.

Trained classically both locally and abroad, du Plessis’s knack at improvisation is arguably the wizardry that makes his work fly. Nearly 10 years ago, he formed a jazz trio – which today comprises Werner Spies on bass and Peter Auret on drums.

“We started playing the kind of jazz you would find anywhere else in the world. And then something strange began to happen. Over the years in my repertoire, classics and jazz started to merge. More and more. Eventually, I realised I quite like taking classical music and turning it into a kind of jazzy sound, but still keeping the inherent quality of the original classical music. It sort of stimulates both markets.

“Jazz people like it, because they can understand and it opens the doors to classical music for them. And the classical music lovers recognise Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, or Air on a G string by Bach, and all of a sudden it’s new and fresh and they have a smile on their face. I’m not the first person to do something like this, but I have had success with it, and it’s certainly artistically gratifying for me.

“I can play Chopin or Bach, but so can hundreds of other pianists. I like to give the music my own flavour in a sophisticated way so that it is never easy. It is never rommel trommel in the corner of a restaurant kind of thing. It is something distinct, which people like.”

Born and raised in Bloemfontein, du Plessis went to Grey College. After school, he studied piano under Joseph Stanford at Pretoria University and then honed his craft in Texas and Zurich. He returned to South Africa close to 20 years ago.

“The first person who gave me a full time job, back then, was Nataniël, the singer and stage personality; I still work with him. I have learnt so much from him in terms of his unrelenting work ethic. His standards are very high in terms of what he offers his public, always.

“He once said: If you live in a country where you weren’t born, sometimes it’s difficult to really make a contribution because people see you as a foreigner. And this is so true: Even though playing piano essentially has no language, the problem is that there is a matter of being able to contribute a little more. And that’s why I am still here.”

Piano was du Plessis’s first professional instrument. But “when I was little – before my voice broke, I used to sing. So the voice was my first instrument of making music. And then I played piano as well, but not so seriously, and then my voice broke and I was like: ‘Oh hell! What am I going to do now?!’

“I tried to play a bit of organ at university, but the piano was the only thing that really tickled me.”

Being a pianist who also does his own promotion is, he says, extremely difficult, but also quite liberating. “I am not the sort of artist who sits and practises and waits for the New York Philharmonic to phone me. They’ll never phone me because they don’t know I’m alive! But if I phone them, or if I do my own thing and make work for myself, then people are likely to say: ‘Yes, I think I’ve heard of you. Or I think I’ve heard your CD.’ The truth is, these days, it’s every man for himself.”

In 2010, du Plessis was named as Africa’s youngest ever Steinway artist, a status which comes with a responsibility to shine. But du Plessis has done more than shine. He’s given pianos new life, in the most astonishing of ways.

There’s a scene in the 2000 film Billy Elliott directed by Stephen Daldry in which a piano is chopped up into firewood. It’s like watching a murder. Du Plessis concurs. “A damaged piano is like a battered or neglected wife. And the value of a bit of a makeover or a visit to the hairdresser is huge.”

His playing tours all come with a bit of a side-show in which the piano is taken apart. “This developed out of my travels to different concert halls, where sometimes the pianos are in terrible shape,” he says. “I asked Ian Burgess-Simpson, a Steinway-trained technician, to come on board as a doctor who would resuscitate pianos all across the country.”

This healing process was conducted free of charge. “It comprises a tuning – which is like putting petrol into a car – with a full service, which is about going into the machine and replacing stuff, and fixing stuff … and you know what? We’ve had such incredible response from the instruments which were okay – they were satisfactory, and then all of a sudden, they’ve become Formula One racing cars.

“The venues are very happy to have this tour because it benefits them. But how does it benefit the audience? And that is how I thought of the idea of taking the piano apart in front of the audience. When we played in Cape Town for example, one old lady came to me with tears in her eyes. She said ‘I have been a member of this concert club for maybe 15 years. I have never been allowed to see the piano close up. I’ve never even touched it. I’ve never been allowed to go on stage, let alone see the inside.’

“We live in a society in which we can google everything. People don’t like not knowing. They want to open things up and find out how they work. With the piano, I invite people in. I talk, I explain the piece I play, so that it’s not all formal.”

The composer headlining the season at Auto and General Theatre on the Square this week is George Gershwin. “I love him,” Du Plessis is unequivocal. “He’s the universal standard for everyone from jazz saxophonists to opera singers to classical pianists. Gershwin’s one of those guys with one foot in the world of classics, one foot in the world of jazz, and people respect him for that.”

It’s a mixture of musical respect, intimate knowledge of the work and humour, not to mention improvisational fire that will make you fall in love with du Plessis.


Pearls from a mandolin

Alon Sariel

Who could ask for anymore more than a mandolin in the palm of your hand: Israeli-born mandolinist Alon Sariel visits South Africa this month. Photograph courtesy http://www.letsgo.co.za

HISTORY WILL TELL you the mandolin’s popularity has wavered. It played second fiddle to the fiddle. And when the guitar came into fashion, the mandolin was subject to design modifications, forcing it to take a path less travelled. But good stuff always rises to the surface: When the powers that be put a mandolin into the hands of Alon Sariel, it grabbed him by the heart and the fingers and hasn’t let go. He chatted to My View from Germany last weekend, prior to his brief South African tour.

He tells the story of his roots with the mandolin on his website.  To paraphrase, when he was eight, his world changed. Picture the scenario. It was the 1990s. He was the youngest of five children. His siblings were all teenagers. And the beat of rock and pop permeated his home. His parents decided he should learn music. “They tried all sorts of gym-oriented classes first (which were totally not for me!),” he quips. “But then they gave me the choice of music.” But what instrument would it be?

“An electric guitar!” was his unequivocal unmoderated eight-year-old choice. But the music conservatory he was to learn at wasn’t convinced, quailing at the idea of a child making electric guitar riffs with abandon, and “They offered me the mandolin instead. ‘It’s just like a guitar,’ they said.” They weren’t wrong. “It’s been my voice ever since,” says Sariel, who now in his early 30s, has wooed and wowed the music fraternity internationally, with many concerts recordings and international awards under his belt.

“Early on, I knew if I wanted to have an international career,” Sariel, who was born in the Israeli city of Beersheba, adds. He currently lives in Germany but doesn’t refer to himself as a German immigrant. “I don’t feel that connected to any piece of land – probably like many of my generation. I don’t feel more at home in Berlin than in New York and I think that I do have a mission in this world and it is to spread this music around.”

And the mandolin is small enough to be carried on one’s back, but he says “my instrument is the thing that goes before me, leading me to fascinating places.”

So, you may have been fortunate enough to have seen him perform with Camerata Tinta Barocca, under the baton of Erik Dippenaar, at St Andrews Church in Cape Town on February 7. If you did and you’re now in Gauteng, you’re in the right place. Sariel performs again for Brooklyn Theatre on February 10 and 11 and for Glenshiel on the evening of February 11.

Included in his repertoire in South Africa is a concerto by Emanuelle Barbella who would have celebrated his 300th birthday this year. “It’s a wonderful piece and I really enjoy playing it,” he says. “Barbella?” you might say. “Bar—who?” You might need to google ‘mandolin’, and come away with the belief that’s it’s all terribly old. You wouldn’t be wrong, but you shouldn’t assume it’s irrelevant. Or boring. Sariel says there is a fair amount of mandolin music being written today.

“It’s part of my goal. I try to commission work from living composers whose work I appreciate. Many of the great composers in the classical traditions, like Brahms or Schumann, ignored it. It wasn’t popular during their lifetimes. I wouldn’t like to see the mandolin fade into obscurity this century. So it’s my mission to get audiences to know and hear about this instrument.

“A few years ago,” he says, “I performed Gilad Hochman’s Nedudim (Wanderings). It’s a wonderful piece. It premiered in London, performed in Jerusalem and was recorded in Berlin. It’s garnered lots of attention. I love it because of the part of the mandolin: Some of it is improvised, some is written … when you listen to it, you may think you’re listening to an oud. The work really is a journey.”

Sariel says his biggest challenges are budgetary. “Not everyone is convinced yet of the value of the mandolin. Especially in today’s market when budgets are being cut, everyone wants to go for the secure thing. And the secure thing might well be Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto. Everyone knows it. People love it. It fills halls. If you start with new music with an instrument that is not very known, that doesn’t have a big core repertoire then it is always a risk.

“Some people are curious for something new; others are conservative,” he praises Brooklyn Theatre for being the impetus of his current SA tour and he admits, in spite of the challenges, it is about love: “I love to play the historical instruments. The mandolin of the 18th century is not the mandolin of the 19th century. And they both differ from the modern mandolin.”

In his recordings, he tries to remain true to the original by playing composition, but describes the challenge of accessing an historical instrument as considerable. “Because the mandolin was never as respected as the violin, it wasn’t preserved with as much status as a Stradivarius, for instance. And it was corrupted, from a design and conservation perspective.”

Sariel delights in playing ‘the real thing’ and in finding “original pearls to add to my repertoire. It is a privilege to play these works to an audience who has not heard them before. I don’t shy from arrangements, however: that would be silly, as the mandolin’s repertoire is limited.”

His most recently published album, Telemandolin comprises music arranged to feature the voice of the mandolin. “Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) didn’t write for mandolin. He just is one of my favourites.”

Sariel brings three programmes to South Africa. Why? “If you have to tour with Tchaikovsky and Beethoven and Alban Berg, it’s a lot to keep in your head or suitcase. I know people often tour with the same programme. But in my case, the concerti are ten minutes and I know them well.

“Bach has it all,” he concedes, when pushed for the composer he would choose to play if he could only choose one. “It’s impossible to describe why in words. I need to just play his work. It’s like he knew all the music he made before and after him.”

  • Sariel performs at the Brooklyn Theatre, Menlo Park, February 10-11. Visit brooklyntheatre.co.za or call 012 460 6033.
  • He also performs at Glenshiel, 19 Woolston Road, Westcliff on the evening of February 11. Call Saul Bamberger: 083 414 0041 or visit Olde ‘n New Recitals on Facebook.
  • In addition, he performs the Valentine’s Concert at Brooklyn Theatre, Menlo Park in Pretoria on February 14 @ 19:00. It’s called Mandolino Napolitano — Neapolitan Love Songs and features Sariel in collaboration with Salon Ensemble, featuring accordion, piano and cello and musical arrangements by Willem Vogel. Visit www.brooklyntheatre.co.za or call 012-460-6033.
  • On February 18, he performs in Stellenbosch at the Oude Libertas Summer Season Festival.
  • His published recordings will be on sale at the performance venues.

The woman who sees the world through her piano


MY ‘black sailing ship’ and I: Lithuanian-born pianist Muza Rubackyte only needs to touch a piano to feel at peace with the world. Photograph by Christine de Lanoe (Geneva).

YOU MIGHT BE forgiven for thinking the Johannesburg Musical Society in association with the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival has somehow managed to bring out Meryl Streep to perform its first concert of the year. You’d be mistaken; Lithuanian pianist Mūza Rubackytė brings not only her classic facial features to South Africa, and she is, indeed, a bit of a Streep dead-ringer, but she also brings her flawless technique, which will dazzle you completely. Last week, she took the time to chat to My View, from her home in Paris.

Hers is a story of piano love and the need to earn an international reputation not once, but twice. It’s about the privilege of working with beautiful music, and above all, of being at home in the world.

“I was born into a family of musicians,” she says, explaining that her first name, Mūza, is a derivation of the Greek term ‘muse’: it’s like her family knew her talents before she was born. “The challenge was to find out which instrument to put into my hands. My mother and her sister were pianists and my father, an opera singer.”

They put a violin into her toddler hands. They got her to sing. She smiles. “I played a lot of instruments as a child; my preference was always piano. I grew up in a house full of pianos. My aunt taught students in the house. For me it was fantastic to be a part of that world. I asked my aunt to add me to the list of her students, so that I could be like the ‘big’ people.”

She wasn’t that big when she debuted: She first played in public with the national philharmonic orchestra of Lithuania when she was seven. And the die, it seems, was cast for a brilliant career.

But growing up under a Communist regime, even after 19 very serious and focused years of music study, she was still a big fish in a small pond. Or was she? She didn’t know. She was not allowed to leave the Communist Bloc to spread her wings.

By the time Gorbachev came into power, in the 1990s, the draconian laws had softened a bit and there was a possibility that she could travel to the west if it was with a plan to study.

“It felt like nonsense to me at the time, as I had studied for so long and achieved so much, already. The Tchaikovsky Conservatory of Moscow, which is still considered among the best in the world, was where I had learned my skills, but the one thing I felt was lacking in their teaching programme was French music.”

So in 1991, with a bid to spend 10 months studying French music, she left the Communist Bloc for the first time. “So, this was my beginning in the West,” she says. “It wasn’t difficult to integrate into western culture, because music is a universal language. But it was difficult to start my career again. In the West, no one knew my successes. I had to start again from nothing. It took me almost 10 years. I met the good people, step by step, but it was a tough time.”

She mentions how her win of the Grand Prix at the Liszt-Bartók International Piano Competition in Budapest in 1981 was not recognised by the music fraternity of the West. It took time, and hard work, but eventually, she won First Prize in the Concours International Les Grand Maîtres Français and she was back on track.

These days, Mūza commutes between Paris, Vilnius and Geneva, when she’s not travelling further afield for concert performances. What’s it like to be on the go all the time? “You need to like it,” she’s frank. “I like to escape from the routine, but being on the move has become a part of who I am. I cannot be at the same place more than three or five days. I get restless. To travel to faraway countries is extremely exciting for me. It’s snowing in Vilnius right now. Here – in Paris – it’s raining. And next, week I will be in hot South Africa.”

But it’s more than just weather. “I like to see the world,” she says. “I am like a shipman or a gypsy. I see the world through my piano. And it’s the happiest of careers for me: I get to travel to the big halls to meet new audiences. I get to live in high level music, and to touch fantastic composers – to understand them and transmit … it’s extremely exciting.”

“Nevertheless,” she adds, “I also adore ‘home sweet home’, where my beloved husband and I dance together, cook together and write together. We are writing an autobiography at the moment about my enchanted life. Often my husband joins me in my tours to live the strong moments in art and see the world together. It’s a real joy for us. The nature is also something that we both really need,” she says, anticipating South Africa’s warm climes and magnificent landscapes.

Acknowledging the complexity of a musician’s career – you may have the ability but what happens next: do you teach or compose? Record or travel? When do you practice? – Mūza composed prolifically until she was about 18-years-old. “There were lots of compositions for piano, for violin, for small ensembles. Doing this was part of my education, but finally, you must choose.

“Being a performer, you need lots of hours of music. It’s not only about playing the piano. It’s about travelling, organising, recording, publicity.” Rubackytė gives master classes wherever she goes. She’s a piano professor at Lithuania’s National Academy of Music and organises a big piano festival in Lithuania, now in its fifth year.

Next week, she performs works by Mozart, Beethoven and Schumann in Johannesburg. “The programme is my choice, but it complies with JIMF’s theme this year of opposites. Schumann’s Carnaval and his Arabesque illustrate a dual personality,” she adds.

With a life’s repertoire of about 40 concert programmes concertos, over 40 piano concertos and 30 recordings, Mūza remains hungry to learn more. At the beginning of the year, she went to her library and took out all the scores she would need for her concert fixtures. “It’s a pile like this,” she indicates a lot. “I cannot take scores in my luggage; they’re too heavy. I have to carry them in my head,” she grins.

She baulks at the idea of choosing a ‘favourite’ composer. “It’s all about the piano. I cannot be ‘vegetarian’ and choose one over another. The privilege of touching the piano is everything.”

Two years ago she was a jury member for the Unisa piano competition, in Pretoria. “It was marvellous. I invited the winner, Daniel Ciobanu, to this year’s Vilnius festival, so I have good souvenirs of your country.”

  • Mūza Rubackytė performs in a piano recital for the Johannesburg Musical Society and the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival at the Linder Auditorium, Parktown on February 3 at 8pm. Visit jms.org.za or www.join-mozart-festival.org for more details.
  • She also performs in Pretoria, on February 1, Knysna on February 6 and Cape Town on February 8. Visit muza.fr.
  • CDs of the programme she will perform in South Africa – recorded in Tokyo – will be on sale at her performances.

The consul, the child, his conscience, her piano


WHY I survived. Lina Kantor (Amato), storyteller. Photograph by Johnathan Andrews.

WHAT IS THE worst thing that can happen to a story about an historical atrocity? That it can be shunned? That it can be told too infrequently? That no one wants to experience it? None of these: the worst thing that can happen to a tale of atrocity is that it is told and retold and retold until its fire is dimmed by commonplace. Film maker Johnathan Andrews steps with sensitive wisdom around these pitfalls, to create something timeless and haunting in just 48 minutes.

Using direct personal interviews, with Lina Amato, the woman herself, who as an eight-year-old, knew that her life was being saved by the Turkish consul of the time, The Story of Holocaust Survivor Lina Amato contains no visual clichés of mass destruction or concentration camps. It has no voiceover, explaining the nature of the work, and attempting to frame and curate your response to it. There are no easy cues to weep. Rather, in a similar filmic understanding as that propagated by Claude Lanzmann in his immense and iconic extrapolation of the Holocaust, a over 10-hour-long documentary called Shoah (1985), Andrews offers his viewers insight into the intricacies and the horror of Lina Amato’s true story.

Currently resident in Cape Town, Amato is today a woman in her 80s. She speaks of the cultural wealth of her life in Rhodes Island, off the Turkish coastline where she was born in 1936. It’s a story that features interjections by SA Holocaust and Genocide Foundation director, Richard Freedman, which offers clear facts that give you context: War was approaching with a cloak of hatred that was to envelop even the smallest of little children.

But under that pall of destruction, enormous empathy was allowed to bubble and manifest in ways that a peaceful society could not contain. Lina tells of her parents’ Italian neighbours who adopted her and taught her to ‘be’ Christian in order to save her life. She tells of the decisions taken by the Turkish consol, Selahattin Ülkümen in 1944 to save whichever Jewish lives he could and of how an island “bathed in sunshine” and home to a tiny community of 3 800 Jews turned into a nightmare of uncertainty. Above all, it is the tough silences in her story that speak more deeply.

Further to this, music is threaded through the tale. Lina’s mother was a piano teacher, and her struggle to save her pianos is potent and legendary, making you think of Sophie’s Choice in the unforgettable story by William Styron. And this, together with a beautifully placed spot of Chopin – by way of his Prelude in A — hooks the film to the Mozart Festival’s focus.

It’s an absolutely beautiful piece of film, which, lasting but 48 minutes, offers a rich and deep understanding of the power of hate, but also the power of love in a world that has lost its moral compass. Further to all of this, the intelligent editorial decisions informing this film present understandings of the psychological effects of trauma, abandonment and guilt that are devastatingly potent in their understated handling.

  • The Story of Holocaust Survivor Lina Amato is directed by Johnathan Andrews and features Holocaust survivor Lina Kantor (Amato), SA Holocaust and Genocide Foundation Director Richard Freedman and Turkish Ambassador in South Africa Elif Çomoğlu Ülgen. Produced by (assistant) Angela Kate Jones, it features the sound engineering of Garrick Jones.
  • It will be screened in Johannesburg on January 27 2018 at the Space Frame Theatre, Education Campus, University of the Witwatersrand, in Parktown Johannesburg. Tickets are free of charge, but seating in the space is limited.
  • The DVD will be on sale at the screening, which is part of the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival, and commemorates International Holocaust Remembrance day, January 27.
  • Visit johnathan-andrews.com , www.join-mozart-festival.org and http://ja-inl.com
  • The DVD of this film may be purchased online through: https://unitedworldnation.org/product/the-story-of-lina-amato/ or https://goo.gl/gDoXCV 

Ciao, Piazzolla; thanks for all the tango!


FUN and tango and seeing what happens next: Nikolaj Abramson (clarinet), Jan Jachmann (accordion) and Arthur Hornig (‘cello). Photograph by Christoph Herpel.

WHAT DO YOU get when you toss some well-heeled classics together with an unusual kind of trio, an appetite for experimentation with symphonic rearrangement and a clear, fresh look at the future of music audiences? That’s easy: you will experience it all in Johannesburg next Sunday evening, courtesy of the Johannesburg Musical Society, played by Jan Jachmann (concert accordion), Nikolaj Abramson (clarinet) and Arthur Hornig (‘cello), collectively known as Trio NeuKlang. In South Africa for the first time, the trio took the time to chat to My View last week.

In 1998, it was the universe effectively, who put the trio together. Given their respective skills, Jachmann and Abramson were approached separately to premier a new work by contemporary German composer, Georg Katzer.

“We met each other in rehearsal,” remembers Berlin-born Jachmann (35). “Had we stayed within that framework, there would not have been much for us to do: the trio is an unusual combination of instruments; there are not many pieces composed for a clarinet, concert accordion and ‘cello.” But the premier went well and music organisers’ ears pricked up, the world over.

Their first international invitation as a result of this performance was to Japan. “We told the festival director in Japan that we only have the one piece and it is very modern,” Hornig takes the story’s reins. “He replied, ‘Yes, well. Japan is a very modern country. It will work out well.

“But a few weeks before the festival, he came to Berlin to find out what we were doing, and … well, he said Japan’s not that modern after all. And he asked us if we could play something ‘normal’ instead. And so this was the start of us arranging things, for our instruments. After a while, we added some jazz chords and tango rhythms, which is how we came to be where we are now.”

Says Abramson (40), who also rearranges the music: “The challenges of rearranging the work are not that difficult. The accordion is like a little orchestra all of its own. The ‘cello is the bass, and I have the solo in clarinet. It’s not that difficult. The left hand of the accordion is very near to the ‘cello, and the sound mixes very well.”

Born in Moscow, Abramson immigrated to Berlin as a child, with his parents. “It was a time when a lot of Russians were immigrating to Germany,” he says, which made it possible for him to experience the best of both worlds in terms of music education.

Both he and Kornig (30) were educated at the same professional music school, ten years apart. Born near Kassel, the son of an actor and an amateur musician, Hornig remembers moving around a lot as a small child. Berlin became his home when he was a teenager.

“My first ‘cello was like a viola with a stick,” he grins. He joined the trio in 2004.

Speaking of the trio’s unique sound, Jachmann says that it is “a bit more of symphonic than a conventional piano trio, because the sound of the accordion is closer to that of woodwinds.

“The novelty of our trio – NeuKlang means ‘new sound’ – was the combination of instruments; it’s all new. But it’s still developing. We can’t say what we will be doing in five years from now,” he grins.

You think of the idea of a German trio calling themselves NeuKlang and in your mind, you might conjure up an image of three proto-Dadaists of the teens of the twentieth century, wearing leder hosen, out to reinvent the world, armed with skills and beliefs.

You’d be only a little wrong: not that Jachmann, Hornig and Abramson are Dadaists, or that they wear trousers made of stiff leather, but rather because they’re deeply savvy as to the value of culture and how it conflates with music.

The accordion’s an unusual instrument, says Jachmann. “It’s not very loved, nor very popular, but there have been other developments over the last several decades with good accordion players who were keen to get it into the canon of serious instruments, so it’s no surprise we found each other playing contemporary music. Original compositions for this instrument all date back just 50 years.”

These days, the accordion has become something of an avant-garde trendsetter and the folksy instrument it was has been pushed and pulled into a variety of contemporary directions, but nothing’s that simple, Jachmann explains: “On the one hand you have this folk music thing. And on the other, you have this modern contemporary thing which wants to be serious and has nothing! To! Do! With! Folk! Music! At! All!” he shouts, emphasising the purists’ viewpoint, but not without irony.

“It also has nothing to do with money,” interjects Abramson, with not a little dollop of cynicism.

“If you compare German folk music to that of Italy or France,” Jachmann adds, speaking of how the Third Reich’s history sullied its reputation. “It’s less vivid. It’s rather a different kind of a thing, and it fits more into museums than on the street.

“In Germany you have serious music on the one hand and not-so-kosher volk music on the other. The accordion knows both worlds. Not only in Germany but in other countries too: from Russian to Argentina, it’s a part of popular culture, and fits neither in one world nor another. This is what we do: get two worlds in dialogue with one another, and see what happens.

“When you’re in the audience,” he adds, “You might not notice these things consciously. But listening to music is not about thinking. It’s about feeling something which you can say ‘oh! That spoke to me!’ and often you can’t explain why.” That’s the trio’s magic.

But what brings them to Africa? In short, a youtube video. Some time ago, the trio embarked on a project: a bit of a lark, but also a bit of a promotional exercise, it’s a four minute mash-up of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with the tango, which you can see here.

In it, they take the weather indicated in the work to heart, playing in fountains and car washes, on fake snow and in direct sun. “Hermann van Niekerk, the promoter of the Sasolburg Theatre saw this video by chance on youtube,” says Hornig, “He’s loves the accordion. And one thing led to another.”

Technology today makes the world turn, Jachmann grins: “We’re living in a time of globalisation with all its effects. The music is a by-product of this interconnectivity and it is universal.”

The repertoire for the JMS concert draws from the trio’s second CD, entitled Goodbye Astor. It’s a tribute to the influence quintessential Argentinean tango composer Astor Piazzola (1921-1992) has had on their work, but it’s also testament to where that work is currently going.

“If you don’t want to just play stuff other people with other instruments have played before,” says Jachmann. “What do you do? We thought: what could be new? What could be interesting for us and the audience? It was a collaborative decision to blend classical music with tango lingo. We put it out there, and said ‘let’s see what will happen. Nikolaj started arranging and everything fell into place.”

Retrospectively, it feels obvious: if you have an accordion, it always seems to shout out Piazzolla! even before you take it out of its case.

Says Abramson: “We combined it a consideration of Piazzolla and how he influenced other classical music, and we got this feedback which said Piazzolla’s nice, but this is more. It’s our goodbye and thank you to Piazzolla for everything,” he laughs.

Goodbye Astor comprises arrangements by us,” adds Jachmann. “It’s still tango, but it’s also something else. Something I can’t describe in words.”

Each piece on the programme is dedicated to the composer from whom the music derives, says Hornig. “Schubert, Brahms, Bach … in a tango net.”

Jachmann laughs. “It’s a bit of a trial to see how South African audiences respond to it. In Germany, the very conservative audiences love us most, as they have knowledge and can recognise the classic originals. It’s then when the fun really starts.”

But this kind of mash-up is no joke, or self-indulgent trick. “It’s very easy to do a crossover thing with some melody,” he adds. “But if you want to take the music you are playing seriously, you must get into proper dialogue with it. We respect the music. We’re looking forward to playing for an audience, who does too.”

Lessons of love and music


WITS Trio at work: Malcolm Nay (on piano), Zanta Hofmeyr (on violin) and Maciej Lacny (on ‘cello). Photograph courtesy Maciej Zenon Lacny.

UNEQUIVOCALLY, IT IS the work of Schubert that violinist Zanta Hofmeyr gravitates toward, if she has to think of music that will last her a lifetime. Hofmeyr, a member of the Wits Trio, which comprises also pianist Malcolm Nay, who is also a professor of music at Wits, and ‘cellist Maciej Lacny, took some time last week to speak to My View. The trio performs its annual concert next Sunday at Wits University.

“Schubert is so precise. Even renowned piano teacher Pauline Nossel insists on teaching music from that era – for technique. That’s where you hone an artist. To really clean the playing. There is no room for unnecessary mannerisms. I’m also a big Brahms fan. And Beethoven. These composers are about extreme awareness of colour, of proportion, of phrasing, of precision and of intonation.”

The eldest of eight children, to a couple who were church organists and pianists in their spare time, Hofmeyr was born in 1962 and raised on Johannesburg’s West Rand. She speaks of the imperatives in place in her life as a child. “We all started with piano at the age of six or seven. And then after two years, we could decide whether we wanted to learn a second instrument.

“There was a violin at home; I chose it when I was 10. I never hated it, but I found it difficult to play. I still do. By nature, I’m a sucker for challenge; the instrument’s difficulty was what hooked me.”

Hofmeyr doesn’t stint in acknowledging the value of well-funded music centres in the schools when she was a child. “Being white in South Africa under apartheid, we had so much privilege. Our teachers were all people from the then SABC national orchestra.”

These included Czech teacher Eva Hescova and later, Vincent Frittelli, then the SABC’s concert master. “Eva really pulled the trigger for my whole career. She really inspired me.

“Vincent started me on open strings, scales and studies. He focused on technique. And he was taught by no less than Ivan Galamian – possibly the greatest strings teacher the world has ever known. Galamian also taught such performers as Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman and Daniel Heifetz; it was under Vincent’s tuition for five years that I developed as a performer.”

A scholarship at the age of 15 to the Interlocken Festival in Michigan over nine weeks, and time with the World Youth Orchestra opened her skills to rapidly learning new works from composers of the ilk of Béla Bartók, Gustav Mahler, Igor Stravinsky and César Franck. During that year, she also played with the National Youth Orchestra.

“For the first time in my life,” she remembers, “I heard and played in a performance of Camille Saint-Saëns’s organ symphony. I was playing in the World Youth Orchestra in the first violin section and I just sat there and sobbed as I played. I was overwhelmed. I’d never heard anything like it before. It was so beautiful.

“It was also the first time in my life that I experienced doing music from 7 in the morning until 10 at night. Nothing else. When my father came to fetch me at the airport, my mind was made up. I said: ‘Papa, I am going to be a musician.’ That was all.”

Hofmeyr’s career developed rapidly after she finished school. On the advice of Frittelli, she applied for a scholarship at the Cleveland Institute. During that year, which was also her matric year, she entered and won several competitions, which enabled her to study in America; she speaks briefly of the value of the competition in the concert world.

“Nothing would make you practise as hard as a competition, so it lifts your level of performance. If you win, it opens up a lot of doors. If you don’t, you must accept it: but it’s good experience and you’re playing better than you otherwise would have.”

But it’s not a magic pill. “Even for competition winners, building a career depends on your own initiative. So in South Africa, we have this situation where we don’t have agents for classical musicians and even now, after a career of 40 years, each year, I have to apply to every person who has a concert series.”

But performing keeps you humble, she says. “It forces you to keep your feet flat on the ground.”

Speaking of humility, Hofmeyr flits understatedly over the five years she studied at the Juilliard School of Music in New York, from the age of 18. “It was my dream come true,” she adds gently.

Violin is one thing, piano’s another, and over the years, Hofmeyr kept up with her piano studies, learning with one Tannie Ria de Klerk in the West Rand before she switched to Peggy Haddon.

“I’m a more natural pianist than I am a violinist. I pick up piano quickly, but I have to practise violin a lot. If I don’t, I lose it like that,” she clicks her fingers. “The hard work is lonely. But it is worth it.”

Hofmeyr’s involvement in the Wits Trio goes back more than 20 years. In 1996, she began collaborating with Wits music professor, Malcolm Nay. The duo grew to a trio, soon after, when they welcomed ‘cellist Marion Lewin into their repertoire, and later ‘cellist Heleen du Plessis.

“Malcolm has been pivotal in this experience and the history of this trio,” she says commenting on Nay’s his strong musical personality and influence, as, she says often happens in a trio of this nature, where the pianist is central.

“About six years ago, Robert Brooks from MIAGI introduced us to Maciej Lacny, a Polish ‘cellist. He’s married to Khanyisile Mthethwa, the flautist. At first we didn’t know each other; our performance styles were different, but he’s a phenomenal ‘cellist. It’s been a very adventurous five years, during which time, we have become stylistically closer. I can best refer to the trio as dynamic: we each have strong personalities, which makes listening to our performances a very exciting experience.”

The trio’s repertoire includes all the Brahms trios, Dvořák’s ‘Dumky’ trio, which Johannesburg Music Society audiences were privileged to hear earlier this year, some Beethoven trios … “The repertoire gets richer as we perform,” she says. “We’ve come closer to each other, stylistically, over the years. Chamber music is very stimulating for each individual in a trio. It’s a fantastic form of music as there are no hiding places and everyone has to be at their best.

“In the concert on Sunday, we play trios by Beethoven, Hendrik Hofmeyr and Schubert – that trio was written in the year before his death. They are huge works, very beautiful and mature.”

Hofmeyr is frank in acknowledging the overwhelming whiteness and increasing age of South African classical music audiences right now, but she doesn’t agree that it’s pervasive or eternal.

“I am a patron of the Thabang Kammino project hosted by St Matthew’s School in Soweto, but not a lot of publicity reaches them. St Matthew’s is a Catholic school, run by the Sisters of Mercy; the music project was started by one of the nuns, Sister Berchmans in 2000. She’s now a woman in her 80s, but she still feels that every child should be exposed to a musical education. She is like a snowball, rolling and gathering students. And she’s completely savvy that this music project is not about developing performers. It’s about planting seeds in young people’s sensibilities. And growing audiences.”

Books that redefine the universe

By Sinead Fletcher

  • Sinead Fletcher is a third year fine arts student at the University of Johannesburg who recently took part in the Arts Writing course facilitated by Robyn Sassen.

A man for all books: Professor Buzz Spector. Photograph by Sinead Fletcher.

“MAKE YOUR OWN book, Buzzy,” was the instruction that a three-year-old Buzz Spector remembers most clearly as the trigger that started his illustrious career as a book artist.  Arguably one of the superstars of the Booknesses Colloquium and Exhibition – currently on show in Johannesburg – Spector spoke to My View whilst he was in South Africa for the opening and conference hosted at the end of March.

His mother’s instruction came with his first 16-page, brown craft paper book that was sewn with red yarn. This was the paper in which his three-year-old’s sister’s diapers, freshly delivered from the laundry came wrapped in. Spector explains that this moment and this investment of a kind of creative autonomy, planted the seeds of interest which began his exploration and fascination with the book.

These days, armed with qualifications in the field from the Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, and the University of Chicago, Spector, who is currently a professor of art at the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Art at Washington University in St Louis, enjoys exploring the making of artists books by way of altering already established archival, record keeping encyclopaedias and almanacs, which boast graphically and typographically identical layouts. Working with great writing – philosophical or fiction – is a difficult process, he says,  as it requires him to explore and read the texts carefully and deeply.

Not every book that makes for great reading served his purposes though. Many do not “suit my method,” he says, explaining that he can go many years before finding books which are suitable for his forms of book alteration. The criteria which Spector follows to find his ideal book include the institutional nature of the text, the quality of paper that the text is printed on, the sturdiness of the binding, the physical properties of the dust jacket and the presence or absence of mould or mildew.

“All of these concerns, from root materiality to critical reading, have to be in play for the work to begin.”

Spector knows South African art making well. He considers Willem Boshoff, who he’s known since 1995 a “kindred spirit”. Articulating great admiration for the work of William Kentridge, Spector also mentioned that recently he has become more aware of books made by artists such as Stephen Hobbs and Stephan Erasmus.

Having worked at a few paper mills, over the years, including Dieu Donné in Brooklyn, New York, Spector says he has been “impoverished” with his selections of paper thus far and is now “looking for the buffet” after being exposed to the work of Mary Hark and other young South African artists.

Describing the Booknesses Colloquium as having had a quality of urgency that showed both in the enormous emotional investment of professionals associated with the University of Johannesburg people – David Paton especially – and in artist book collector Jack Ginsberg’s desire to enable the exhibit to spark a transformative social interest in South Africa, he said this urgency was reflected a sense of caring and desire which, within the international community, he explains, “promotes urgency in reawakening our interest to go out and promote our practise.”

Spector spoke of the multiple panels in the Colloquium, which focused on a rich mêlée of books-related issues, including the notion of the book’s relevance to culture as well as the problem of the book being exhibited as a stillness of form whose “meaning arises in motion.”

  • The Booknesses exhibition, comprising the collection of Jack Ginsberg and curated by David Paton, is on show at the FADA Gallery on the Bunting Road Campus of the University of Johannesburg and the UJ Gallery on the Kingsway Campus, until May 5. Contact David Paton on: dpaton@uj.ac.za or 082 888 4859. Or visit website: http://www.theartistsbook.org.za/