The ultimate head hunt

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MY head, someone else’s body: The plight of Set Niemand in Schalk Schoombie’s Kop.

ALL SET NIEMAND really ever wanted to be was a pianist who distinguished himself from the pack. But the universe stepped in with a more complicated reward. This nifty science fiction work penned in Afrikaans by Schalk Schoombie is certainly something to cosy up to the wireless for, this Thursday night. It’s not a drama to warm the cockles of your heart in the conventional sense, but it will keep you glued to the story from the first few notes of Beethoven’s Fur Elise, which is the central thread tying the work together.

Niemand, portrayed as a child by Eloff Snyman and as an adult by Wilhelm van der Walt, is beset with what is known as Kennedy’s syndrome. It’s a spinal condition which is degenerative; deft technical design allows you to ‘see’ the damage inflicted on this young man’s sense of self. In just under an hour, the representation of the passage of time is handled with succinctness and wisdom.

And then, the possibilities of medical science steps in. And you may recall a Lindsay Duncan film in the early 1990s called Body Parts which dealt with the transplant of a murderous hand that has a mind of its own. This is the kind of thing evoked here, in this distinctly Frankensteinian tale, written within a contemporary rubric of plausible science.

While the work ends with startling and unpredictable abruptness which allows for the voice of religious believers, the point is made with clarity that will resonate with your sense of self. It’s about the intelligence of your body as you’ve taught it to do certain things, as it is about the untouchable relationship between body and soul, mind and spirit. Rather than silly gimmickry, the work touches on the magic in the therianthropes of ancient times, the man with the head of a wolf, the god with the face of an elephant, a mix of personas to create something more.

It’s an exceptionally strong piece of writing, brought to life by careful direction and editing, and of course, nuanced performances. Premised on the mythical ethos that in 1967 set Christiaan Barnard’s first successful heart transplant alive with possibility all over the world, the story touches on all the human factors of the ultimate transplant.

Make your coffee and visit the bathroom before you settle down next to the wireless on Thursday: you won’t want to miss a second of this tale.

  • Kop is written by Schalk Schoombie and directed by Johan Rademan. Featuring technical input by Cassi Lowers, it is performed by Susanne Beyers, Karli Heine, Johann Nel, Eloff Snyman, Lindie Stander, Wilhelm van der Walt and André Weideman, and debuts on RSG on Thursday May 17 at 8pm. It will be rebroadcast at 1am on Monday, May 21, part of the radio station’s Deurnag programme. It is also available on podcast: rsg.co.za

Lessons of love and music

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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.”

The Universe in a Musical Chord

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OH, the things you can do with a keyboard: Johannesburg Mozart Festival’s Composer in Residence for 2017, Neo Muyanga. Photograph courtesy panafricanspacestation.org.za

MUSIC WASN’T THE first life choice of this year’s Composer in Residence for the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival. It was physics. Indeed, Neo Muyanga (b. 1974), calls music the mistress he serves under duress. He told My View about music’s grammar, 14th century madrigals and what ‘folk’ means, as well as his two works which debut in Johannesburg on February 5.

“I generally wanted to think outside of boxes that were on offer to me …” he describes the trajectory of his life, spiced by his bravery to experiment and hunger to learn, and punctuated with his ability to listen to silence. During the 1990s, he worked as a journalist for Radio 702. At the time, in collaboration with Masauko Chipembere, he formed BLK Sonshine, an acoustic duo. “It was a huge stress relief because in the daytime, I would spend my time covering protest marches or being shot at; at night I would work it all out through harmony and be back the next day for more bullets.”

Born in Soweto, Muyanga grew up singing in choirs. He elected to study madrigals at a college in Trieste, Italy; his career path was never predictable. “I started learning music theory with someone who was my history teacher in high school; I spoke to her the other day and she referred to me as ‘self taught’,” he remembers how this teacher opened doors for him that he didn’t know existed.

He learnt music theory on the piano, but not how to play it. “In Italy, I joined an avant-garde rock band – a strange place for a Soweto boy to be – and there was an amazing guitarist in it, who was also a talented economist. At some point, he decided he wasn’t going to make it as a guitarist, so he gave up the guitar and went with economics. I was so upset about this, I decided I would never ever need a guitarist in my life again. So I started playing guitar myself. I practiced like a demon for some months and became good, quickly.”

Muyanga describes his gravitation toward playing the piano as the fruit of a dream. After leaving journalism, he worked in production, where he developed his chops as a sound splicer. In the transition between reel-to-reel and digital, there was much to learn.

“While I was doing that, at some point, I dreamt I could play the piano. The next morning, on the keyboard, I thought ‘Let me just try this …’ It worked.” A miracle? “No,” he says. “I understood how chords work. Something in that dream connected what I had as chord theory with a melodic impulse I was developing as a song writer. That’s the thing about music’s language: it contains the whole universe. Once you learn the grammar, you can apply it and learn other languages by applying your linguistic skills.”

Being composer in residence for this festival doesn’t bring Muyanga to self-consciously self-identify as such. “I think I’m always becoming, and I will remain, I hope, ever young. I am always a beginner at whatever I try to put my mind to. I don’t think one can be taught composition,” he adds. “You can be taught music theory. You can be taught about taste and proportion, but you become a composer through life experience … it doesn’t just happen because you’re a genius,” he laughs quietly.

In being composer in residence, he is “stretching the confines of this conversation about folk music,” he refers to the theme of this year’s festival ‘That’s All Folk(s)’. “In Europe and the west, ‘folk’ talks to Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger … there’s a particular kind of activism, rhetoric and personality that belongs there. We don’t have that as a comfortable space in southern Africa. And I work from the premise of Soweto, which gave me voice, which gives me perspective, constantly.

“Even though I don’t think what I write is ‘Sowetan’, I happen to be from there. It is my lens. And I like to look at what this peri-urban modernity, hipness under duress means over the colonial period.”

This year’s festival closes on a high, with Mozart to Muyanga, a concert featuring Tata and Qukezwa by Muyanga.

Based on Hade Tata, a work he developed with pianist Renee Reznek, which enjoyed its world debut at the festival in 2015, Tata “started out as an orchestration of a piano work but it got the better of me and I started recomposing. So it’s a different piece to the Hade Tata Renee performed, but it relates to the conversation I had with her; it developed out of a commission from Sandra de Villiers at Opera Africa, to write an opera based on the life of Nelson Mandela, using Themba Msimang’s libretto, a dramatisation of A Long Walk to Freedom. I refused: there seemed little reason for me to replicate it. The movie was out. The book was in the world.

“I was more interested in replicating a platform to explore Mandela’s psychological terrain. So, the piece is not specifically to do with the man; it’s about who he was in society and history.”

Qukezwa is based Muyanga’s opera which is based on Zakes Mda’s Heart of Redness and first saw light of day in 2015 at the Fugard Theatre. A revised version of it is on this year’s Grahamstown National Arts Festival – Muyanga is this year’s featured artist for that festival, too.

“In Qukezwa, I’m trying to understand what opera can be in a South African voice. South Africa is the world’s premier training ground for opera singers. We train young black singers from marginalised communities. Everywhere else, opera is a preoccupation of the elite, but in South Africa, it’s the beloved thing to do for the poorest; something about that speaks volumes about South Africanness. I’m trying to find where this particular voice relates to our colonial contingency and how it might have valuable things to say to South Africa and to the world about making community.”

“Mozart to Muyanga” is on February 5 at 3pm at The Edge, Waverly. Performed by Muyanga (piano), Florian Uhlig (piano), Miseka Gaqa (soprano), Noluxolo Jebe (alto), Vusumuzi Nhlapo (tenor), Joshua Pule (bass), and the Johannesburg Festival Orchestra, it comprises Mozart’s Piano Quintet in E-flat Major (K 452), Muyanga’s Tata and Qukezwa and Beethoven’s Piano Quintet in E-flat Major (Op 16). Visit www.join-mozart-festival.org

In love with the San people’s harmony of being in the world: meet Peter Klatzow

Peter Klatzow with Japanese Marimbist Kunihiko Komori at a festival in 2011. Photograph courtesy blog.livedoor.jp

Peter Klatzow at work with Japanese marimbist Kunihiko Komori at a festival in Tokyo in 2011. Photograph courtesy blog.livedoor.jp

If you’ve been at any of this year’s Johannesburg International Mozart Festival, you may have had your proverbial envelope of expectations stretched wide. Arguably, the festival’s pièce de résistance is still to come – on February 8, when this year’s festival’s composer-in-residence Peter Klatzow debuts a work Johannesburg audiences haven’t experienced. Klatzow spoke to My View about the lost years of his youth, San harmony and how he learned African music through his feet.

Klatzow – who turns 70 this year – trained at the Royal College of Music in England, from 1964. “The seed was always there,” he quips, speaking of his upbringing in Brakpan, east of Johannesburg. “There were lots of people who tried to pull that seed it out,” he guffaws. “But they failed!

“My piano teacher wanted me to study with Lamar Crowson at London’s Royal College of Music. When I arrived, he said he’d love to have me as a student, but he was on his way to Cape Town! I studied instead with a wonderful lady called Kathleen Long – amongst others.” Klatzow’s and Crowson’s paths crossed again in 1973 in Cape Town. “We developed a close artistic friendship, which included playing bridge,” Klatzow learnt the game from his grandmother, a cherished woman who taught him more than card games.

“I am a practising Anglican; I come of curious family roots.” Born to a Jewish father and a Christian mother, Klatzow and his brother David – today the eminent forensic scientist—were not considered Jewish by religious law. “My parents fought about many things in their tumultuous, long marriage. The one thing they agreed on was for their children to be Jewish. But the rabbi said no.”

The two Klatzow boys slipped into a limbo devoid of religious ritual until Peter was four and his maternal grandmother “took us to church. The rest,” he grins, “is history. I still remember being baptised!” Klatzow’s considerable body of compositions includes many significant forays into church music and religious paradigms, from masses to requiems, beatitudes to carols.

Speaking of the composer-in-residence title at the Mozart Festival, he recognises his own value: “I’m delighted with the honour; but I bring a lot of work with me. It’s important for a festival’s profile to have a composer-in-residence with international recognition.”

International recognition he has. But do we, as a listenership, know him? There’s a trend in South African radio to not play the music of contemporary local composers.  “Composers are downplayed in South Africa. There are very clear stipulations for local radio stations to play local music: any work has a composer, a recording and a performer. Some works have lyrics. If the person behind two of these categories in a work is South African, the work is considered South African. Obviously, the most important one is the composer.

“But they skip past it,” he speaks of, for instance, a situation where  the leader of an orchestra is South African born, but resident elsewhere, and the music gets punted as South African. “For me that’s cheating.” It’s a cheat not only for Klatzow’s image, but for South Africans’ awareness. “My work is known better overseas than here. We live in a cultureless society that doesn’t look after its artists. So that’s why it is so important that we have a composer-in-residence in this festival and that Richard Cock and Florian Uhlig, JIMF’s directors do make sure our works get played.”

Klatzow’s taste and palette of influences is rich and diverse. He admires the work of 20th century British composer Benjamin Britten as well as the dynamics of African traditional music. Recognised for his use of the marimba, he also works with choirs. Explaining the difference between the concert marimba and the African marimba, he adds, “It is very difficult to combine an African instrument with a concert instrument: the intonation is different. I have a relationship with both western and African instruments. When I wrote Prayers and Dances of Praise from Africa (1996), the sound I had for the two marimbas in that piece was more African.

His love for African music grew from the bottom up: “While I taught at Cape Town’s College of Music, the Kirby Collection – a pre-urbanisation collection of South Africa’s musical heritage – was housed in the room under mine. Those instruments were played, taught and made. So I learnt African music through my feet. I could hear it through the floor.

“Percival Kirby was a minor composer, an internationally acknowledged musicologist and a very decent man. He was also the collector of any instrument that caught his fancy and this enabled him to leave a lasting and proud legacy. There are harps there and pianos, and African instruments. The collection which was started in the 1930s originally belonged to Wits, but is now housed in UCT’s College of Music.

“My one and only instrument is the piano,” he continues. “It’s wonderful for composing: you quickly develop a sense of harmony. If you play an instrument like the flute or the violin, you don’t develop a sense of harmony easily. In fact, I’ve noticed this with students I have had to teach who only play a monophonic instrument. They write contrapuntally with ease; when it comes to chords or harmony, they’re deficient. They cannot put down ten notes at once and hear what it sounds like. Pianists can.

“Most composers begin life as pianists. Like Beethoven. It was only much later that people said ‘Hey! This guy can write music too, what do you know!?’ In those days, everybody read music. Making music was family participation. They wrote string quartets together. It was the parlour thing to do.

In the thick of a rich annual Mozart Festival – the seventh, since its inception – there has been several opportunities to hear Klatzow’s music. But February 8, the final day of the festival, sees the performance of a Klatzow debut: All people become spirit people when they die.

“This piece has evolved over many years, when I was asked by the British a capella group The King’s Singers (founded in 1968) to write them a work for them to be accompanied by Evelyn Glennie on marimba in 1997. It was a very good commission: it was recorded by RCA on their gold label series. I looked around for texts and came across a wonderful little book by Stephen Watson, called Return of the Moon (1991).

“The book’s most moving aspect is its introduction to the San people’s history. The San were here before anyone else; I am so attracted to these people who harmonised so beautifully with nature … and I wrote a piece about them called Return of the Moon, which ends with a movement called The Broken String which talks about their alienation once they lost their land and sense of belonging.

“This performance you will hear next Sunday evening is a rearrangement of the work for a full choir. It’s a new combination for me: choir, piano played by a fabulous pianist – Florian Uhlig – and marimba played by beloved percussionist Magda de Vries. The piece isn’t just a setting of the text. It’s a landscape offering that open barren countryside during daytime and at night.

  • Klatzow’s Vivace, the third movement from his 2010 Cello Sonata will be performed as part of the Mozart Festival in a Chamber concert at Northwards House, Parktown on February 5 at 19:30
  • His All People Become Spirit People When They Die, a world prémiere of this work for choir, piano and orchestra and his Lightscapes for marimba and five instruments will be performed in of the final concert of the Mozart Festival, at the Linder Auditorium, Parktown on February 8 at 15:00.
  • His The Healing Melody will be performed by the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra later this year.
  • In May, the Soweto Opera Company performs his opera Words from a Broken String.