The woman who sees the world through her piano

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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.
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The consul, the child, his conscience, her piano

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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 

Forever Bach

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A well-mannered clavier: Pianist Joanna MacGregor. Photograph courtesy youtube.com

HEAD OF PIANO at the Royal Academy of Music in London, Joanna MacGregor (b. 1959) knew from her early childhood that piano was her first love. Prior to her arrival in Johannesburg, she responded to questions from My View about the flamboyance and fierceness but also the humour of folk traditions, the magic of the mazurkas of Chopin and the inimitable brilliance of Bach. She performs a recital for the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival in partnership with the Johannesburg Musical Society, on February 4.

“I played all kinds of instruments when I was young – guitar, violin, recorder, percussion – but I always knew the piano is like a universe,” she says. “And that’s partly because it represents so many different styles of music: Classical, gospel and blues, jazz and contemporary music.”

Her mother taught her music when she was a very little girl, she won a scholarship to study at South Hampstead High School as an 11-year-old and went on to Cambridge and the Royal College of Music. But it was in accompanying people – engaged in everything from choral work to dance, cabaret to amateur performances of pop songs – that she was able to diversify her approach to music and develop her wide range of musical interests.

MacGregor is known as a teacher with a great sense of proactively making music fun for children, a composer of music for theatre, and a playwright. On a lark, she wrote a radio play about Parisian avant-garde 1920s composer Erik Satie in 1990, entitled Memoirs of an Amnesiac, which starred Jim Broadbent in the character of Satie, which went on to bag a Sony Award.

MacGregor is married to theatre director Richard Williams and she loves the tool of the written word almost as much as she loves that of the musical note. As a teenager, she earned an income writing music for theatre productions, which later developed into writing for film and television as well.

“Really, it was a way to earn money and space to practice,” she adds, referring obliquely to her diversity of skills which include conducting and curating festivals. “And once I started touring a lot, from my mid-20s onward, I stopped.”

One of the first artists chosen for the Young Concert Artist Trust in 1985, MacGregor has, over the prolific trajectory of her career, performed in more than 70 countries with the world’s best orchestras and conductors of the ilk of Pierre Boulez, Sir Simon Rattle, Sir Colin Davis, Michael Tilson Thomas and more. But her enthusiasm for the quirkiness of Satie has lingered as has her interest in the theatre. From Brian Eno to Mozart, oud performances and lute compositions to collaborations with electronica artists, MacGregor’s enthusiasm for all things that feed the rich fabric of music is boundless.

Awarded an OBE in 2012, MacGregor is a frequent British radio and television broadcaster. Currently she is working on the score of a ballet choreographed by Kim Brandstrup, alongside the writer Marina Warner.

Her repertoire in Saturday evening’s concert engages with the folk theme of the Mozart Festival. “The origins of dance connect across Piazzolla’s tangos and Chopin’s Mazurkas, as well as Satie’s Gnossiennes, Ligeti’s Opus 1 Music Ricercata tussles with all kinds of Hungarian folk music, in his inimitable way: funny and furious at the same time,” she says. But ultimately it is the jazziness of Bach that keeps her focused all the time.

“Bach is like the Godfather of the piano canon,” she says. “By playing him I can instantly hear other composers too, from Mozart and Piazzolla to Theolonius Monk and Arvo Pärt. And it’s so rewarding technically, musically and spiritually.”

MacGregor is celebrated for her Bach interpretations and recordings, particularly the famous Goldberg Variations, which she performed under invitation from Sir John Eliot Gardiner to perform at the Royal Albert Hall in 2013 and his Well-Tempered Clavier which she filmed for BBC television.

She speaks in her fabulous North England accent, allowing the words to thrill and sparkle over one another in her enthusiasm and knowledge of the intricacies of the music, but when she sits down to play, as the many YouTube videos online demonstrate, the notes simply take over.

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

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.

The universe in a classical guitar

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He laughs at the idea of being the “darling” of the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival, the eighth edition of which started last Saturday, but classical guitarist James Grace has been an important festival drawcard, performing during the last three years of the festival to capacity-packed venues. This year he performs a solo recital again; but he will also accompany a chamber concert and will perform as a soloist in the closing concert. He has nothing but praise for the initiative of the festival, coined as it has been by Richard Cock and Florian Uhlig. “It might look small on paper,” he says “but it punches way above its weight.”

Opting to play guitar seemed an obvious choice for a young man of a particular generation, in England, when the Beatles were burgeoning and pop stars were growing out of their parents’ garages. Grace, born in 1978, weathered all the conventional, well-intentioned questions: “Guitar? Do you sing? Do you have a band?”

“The whole band thing,” he says, “with the possibilities of electric guitar and amplification – with mechanisms and accessories – is nothing to do with what I do. The guitar for me is the instrument you have the most physical contact with while you play it. All that pushing and plucking … it’s very intimate. You hold it against your chest, and armed only with your hands, fingertips and fingernails, you experience the most extraordinary resonances with your body.”

Grace speaks also of the kind of simplicity honed by Hermann Hesse over a recorder in his novel, The Glass Bead Game: “An acoustic guitar, unlike most instruments, is something you can just pick up and play. You can take it anywhere. You don’t need to plug it in, or have to drive a truck to transport it. You don’t need to take it apart and put it together again,” he says.

Born in Kent, England, Grace grew up in a house full of music. His dad also played the guitar, and as an eight- or nine-year-old, James started private music lessons. He immigrated with his family to South Africa at the age of 10 – on the impetus of a football scholarship which his dad, a housepainter by trade, won – and James learned guitar from then Stellenbosch lecturer, Dietrich Wagner.

He returned to the UK to finish his high school education, where he was tutored privately in guitar by Carlos Bonell and then went on to study at the Royal College of Music in London, an experience he describes as “amazing!” At the college, between 1997 and 2001, Grace was what is known as a foundation scholar, which means that he successfully auditioned for a place each year and was sponsored by the institution, based on the quality of his performed work each year. “At the Royal College, I really got to see the best of the best in this field, from all walks of life.”

But a love for Cape Town was ignited in his adolescent heart in those precious years between the age of 10 and the beginning of high school. Referring to both South African cousins and the magnificence of South African rain storms, Grace knew he would be back. After he graduated from the Royal College of Music in London in 2001, he spent time in Qatar in the Middle East.

“After that I wanted to come back to South Africa. At that point in my career, I felt I could make my own way more convincingly than in London, for instance, where there are a lot more professional classical guitarists. Being in South Africa” – he has been teaching guitar for 20 years and heads the classical guitar department at the University of Cape Town – “gives me space to do what I want.”

The disciplines of teaching and recording vie in his calendar and heart: “I love teaching. It’s a very rewarding experience for me. As a music teacher, one plays a significant role in someone’s life: it’s a very unique position. You are not a parent or a friend, but there is a trust and a very special relationship that remains impartial. You inspire them. They inspire you.

“Recording is another version of making music and listening to it. It is important for posterity. Every album reflects certain stages in your personal life.” In 2007, Grace started his own recording label, Stringwise Records. “It gives me the opportunity to record what I want, to be in control of the process. The company handles everything from CD production to cover design.

“CD stores are closing, these days,” he comments on the need for artists to be proactive not only in making work, but also in marketing it. “People come straight to the artist via a website.”

Stringwise has a vision that extends beyond releasing great CDs. It plans to create an opportunity for selected graduates in music at a South African university to study further abroad. “It will be structured to provide a leg up to would-be professional musicians,” Grace emphasises that it is not for beginner musicians in need of financial assistance.

This year’s JIMF is themed ‘Alla Turca’, and as festival director Cock explains, the programme explores not only Turkish aspects in Mozart’s work, but the idea of exoticism generally. “Much of my repertoire is Spanish,” says Grace. “I’ve always loved Spanish music; there is no shortage of it in this festival’s programme.” He cites the exoticism and mystery of the classical guitar as one of the aspects that made him fall in love with the instrument.

In his solo concert on February 4, Grace will play “fantasy inspired music, featuring works from the Suite Española  (Spanish Suite) by Isaac Albeniz, the evocative Invocacion y Danza (Invocation and Dance) by Joaquin Rodrigo [whose Concierto de Aranjuez Grace performs on February 7 at the Linder Auditorium] and Fernando Sor’s popular Gran Solo.”

 

 

 

Melvyn Tan: Music to change your life

Melvyn Tan. Photograph courtesy www.melvyntan.com

Melvyn Tan. Photograph courtesy http://www.melvyntan.com

Witnessing concert pianist Melvyn Tan perform — either with the Buskaid Soweto String orchestra or alone on stage for the Johannesburg Musical Society — as he did on the weekend, is the kind of experience that will makesyou believe there is a God, after all. Tan has a magical relationship with the music and his piano that seduces his audience.  He holds the notes in his hand as though they were sacred water, and he caresses his piano keys and touches you with his music in a way that you will never forget.

A relatively regular visitor to South Africa, Singapore-born London resident Tan was another of this year’s Johannesburg International Mozart Festival’s unequivocal draw-cards. He spoke to My View, a few days before his concert, focusing on the blessed education he received in London, the value of giving back and the infinity of Schubert and Messiaen.

His concerts in Johannesburg were immensely special: “This is my first time to perform with Buskaid; it’s the first time Buskaid, founded by Rosemary Nalden in 1997, performs with a pianist. I’ve known Rosemary for 30 years. She played with the London Classical Players, under Roger Norrington, with whom I did all my EMI recordings of Beethoven.  When she first started to come to South Africa to run Buskaid, we remained huge admirers of her project.  A few years ago, my partner Paul Boucher, research director of the Montagu Music Collection at Boughton House, Northamptonshire, brought  them to England for some concerts he was organising; it started the ball rolling.

“Since then, they’ve done really well. Last year they came to England and we discussed the idea of a piano concerto. I said, why not? I’ve heard them perform a lot; they don’t often play Mozart: I wasn’t sure what to expect in our first rehearsal, but it was wonderful. They’re such lovely kids, and their performance gets better and better. Last year, in England, they played a suite by Rameau and if I closed my eyes I could have sworn it was a professional orchestra. We were gobsmacked.”

Tan also has a professional passion for piano history. Most of his older recordings were performed on period pianos – from Mozart’s time and Beethoven’s. “The fortepiano is what the piano was, before it developed into the modern instrument, which dates from 1860s. Mozart’s piano was much smaller than the piano you or I would recognise as such. It’s a five octave instrument; wooden in construction, so the action is much lighter and therefore the way you play is very different. I did a lot of my EMI recordings on the fortepiano, which is not to be confused with the harpsichord, an instrument which originates from the 17th century and which is plucked, rather than struck.

“But since then, I have gone back to playing modern piano and repertory, because every artist likes to feel stretched artistically.”

Baulking at the moniker ‘prodigy’ Tan explains that he started piano as a five-year-old in Singapore. “I came to England when I was about 11 and was offered a place at London’s prestigious Yehudi Menuhin School of Music, and basically I stayed there: I have never gone back to Singapore to live. But I do go back now to teach and coach students and also to perform. I didn’t come from a particularly musical family, but my sister who is much older than me played the piano, so I kind of followed. That was how I started to play.

“I wasn’t encouraged to be an independent child, but I was, actually, very independent. When the chance came for me to go to the Menuhin school, I recognised it as a chance in a lifetime. Most of my teachers were French. One was a pupil of Debussy, another, a pupil of Ravel… The wonder of those roots and that education has never left me. Being at the school, it was like we were all part of a family. That ethos still exists – even though Yehudi has died. It’s not a competitive environment: that’s not what you’re taught. Instead, you’re taught to make chamber music and how to listen to everyone else.

“That’s the crux of music making. And it’s lovely. Yehudi was the most wonderful man. He taught us that there’s no such thing as being just a musician. You have to be a person, a human being, first.”

Tan ponders the idea of a favourite composer. “It’s difficult: It would be Schubert. Or Mozart. No, Schubert. If there’s one composer I want to play until I drop dead, it is Schubert. The music has that feeling of eternity about it. It comes from nowhere and it goes to infinity. You could go on playing that music forever.”

But he continues on a stream of consciousness to another love: twentieth century composer Olivier Messiaen, recognised for – amongst other things – transcribing birdsong.

“Messiaen changed my life when I performed his Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus – the twenty gazes of Christ. It’s a cycle based on various writings from the bible, as well as Messiaen’s personal  views of Christ and Catholicism. He started writing it when he was interred in a prisoner of war camp in Nazi-controlled France, in 1943. He wrote it for Yvonne Loriod, whom he married in 1961 and who was the first person who performed it. It was only in the 1960s that the work was recorded and people began to see it as a monument of twentieth century piano music.

On the idea of playing two performances in one day, which he did yesterday, he grins: “Everyone thinks I’m crazy; it was the only way I could do it. I have had worse days: The worst is flying in and doing a concert, on the same day, with jetlag. Funnily enough when you are tired, you play best: you don’t have time to worry about nerves or memory… you just get on and do it. There is no other distraction in your brain. God takes over.”