He who turns battered pianos into Formula Ones

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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-shown 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.

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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.

Strings that can move heaven and hell

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“IT’S HELL TO try and get a concert ready in such a short period of time, but it’s important that we are a part of the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival,” says Rosemary Nalden, the founder and conductor of Buskaid Soweto String Ensemble, arguably South Africa’s most important musical incubator which, based in Diepkloof, Soweto, trains youngsters to perform beautiful music.

Taking a break from rehearsal in the Reformed Presbyterian Church on Mphatlalatsane Street, Nalden, a graduate of London’s Royal College of Music and the University of New Zealand, who enjoys a passion for early instruments and recorded as a violist with conductors of the ilk of Sir Roger Norrington and Sir Simon Rattle, during the 1980s, spoke to My View. The work on the table was one of Bach’s Brandenburg concerti. The focus: timing. The atmosphere: intense. The contrast of Soweto with the exuberance of Bach under the fierce concentration of 10 performers: tears-inducing.

“Selecting them was a bit of a headache,” Nalden speaks of the performers you will see on Saturday. “Our viola section is at the moment not very strong. The thing is, sections come and go, in rather a random way. We have waves of people with preferences for different instruments … a few years ago, actually a lot of years ago, we suddenly lost our ‘cello section and we had to build it up again.

“Those viola players you saw in the rehearsal are actually fiddle players. Khotso Langa is our first viola player. He’s a very talented fiddle player – he’s a very talented boy altogether – and he kept sort of coming to the rehearsals and he’d learnt the music, but he didn’t have a part to play. And then our principal viola left a rehearsal early for some reason a couple of weeks ago and Khotso was hanging around, so I went and found him a viola, and he’d really never played a viola before, you know, it’s a different clef. And I said, ‘Oh come on, Khotso, just do it.’

“He’s really good and he’s got the job. He’s keen and he’s at that sort of adolescent stage – he’s 16 – that he just wants to pretend it doesn’t really matter, that he’s very cool about everything, but you know, he feels intensely he wants this.

“When a child comes to Buskaid for the first time, you really don’t know what potential they have. Most of the time you can sort of tell with some of them it’s going to be a real trial.” Armed with a passion for performance practice and teaching, Nalden uses the teaching technique pioneered by Paul Rolland and developed by Sheila Nelson.

She speaks about a 12-year-old who came to the space just before last Christmas. “He’s become my personal project. And it’s been just mind-boggling. He came into this space out of curiosity. He came and sat and watched regularly. Until I asked him if he wanted to learn.”

A light comes into her eyes. “The other day, he was holding the bow, and I said to him, it looks so good. Does it feel as if you’ve done this before? And he said ‘yes’. That’s sort of a funny little trick: for some of them it feels as if it’s familiar because they do it so well and so easily.”

As a mentor for black adolescents since starting Buskaid in 1997, Nalden, who was awarded an MBE in 2002 and is one of five musicians worldwide to have been awarded honorary membership of the Royal Philharmonic Society, has probably experienced all the emotional trials she could’ve imagined, some of which still surprise her. At the mention of the idea of agony, she eloquently covers her face. “But when they get together and the music just flows in the way you just heard, it’s worth everything.”

This year’s Buskaid concert for the Johannesburg International Music Festival features not only work by Johan Sebastian Bach and Philippe Rameau and a selection of kwela music, as is Buskaid’s tradition, but also Kol Nidrei, a piece of music composed by Max Bruch, which is unequivocally the most important – and most recognisable tune in Jewish culture.

It’s a curious tale that brought it to this repertoire. Nalden’s personal family history rests on Jewish connections, but this is not why we will be hearing Kol Nidrei, the opening song for the confessional festival of Yom Kippur, the most significant of all Jewish observances, in Saturday’s concert.

“Tiisetso Mashishi, the violist and Gilbert Tsoke, the ‘cellist simply fell in love with it,” Nalden explains. “Tiisetso came to me and said he wanted to do a viola arrangement of it. Gilbert heard this and said, ‘Hang on. You can’t do this. This is a ‘cello piece. I want to do it.’

“So there was this conflict going on. We auditioned both of them; they will share it. And that’s not all, Kabelo Monnathebe then asked me where he can find it arranged for violin. They adore it.”

It’s a bit like musical history repeating itself. Nalden muses: “Bruch was not Jewish and he really didn’t write this work for religious reasons. He just took this melody – or rather, all of these melodies, there are a few of them – and just used them, because he loved them.”

Jewish music is not foreign to Buskaid. “Some years ago, we did a Jewish suite of songs. We were playing works by Ernest Bloch. I took five of them to a Friday night service at the synagogue in Glenhove Road, in Oaklands. I’m hoping we’ll get a bit of a Jewish audience, for this concert.”

Grahamstown and Singapore are on Buskaid’s wishlist for 2016, the latter to play with pianist extraordinaire Melvyn Tan, a friend of the project who played with them at last year’s Mozart Festival.

“I raise the money for all of these trips by mainly going to corporate sponsors, but on the whole we enjoy really scant support from the government. It’s so silly. These are ambassadors”, she gesticulates towards the performers. “There’s a perception about young black men in the international world, which could be refuted, and these youngsters have the capacity.”

Nalden continues making dreams come true. “I’ve no idea how many local graduates, we’ve had, but we’ve sent seven to the Royal College of Music, three of whom have graduated; others have gone into other professional directions.”

Referring to the recent scourge of racist accusations in South Africa, she recalls: “When we used to scrape away in the foyer of the Linder Auditorium many years ago, we used to get these elderly (white) ducks, who were coming to hear Richard Cock conducting Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra; they used to say things like ‘what are these people playing this kind of (European) music for?’ It used to make me terribly cross. These kids are far more talented and sensitive to the nuances in the music than the kids I taught in Hampstead. This kind of racism is nonsense. It’s rubbish.”

  • Buskaid under the baton of Rosemary Nalden performs a chamber concert, at The Edge, St Mary’s School in Waverley on February 6, as part of the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival. Visit join-mozart-festival.org and www.buskaid.org.za
  • Read more about the experience of visiting Buskaid here, and what Melvyn Tan had to say to My View last year, here.