Here's to homegrown talent

"Ways to keep warm” could have been the subtitle of the Grahamstown Sextet’s concert on a cold, wet night this week.

Shifted from the Grahamstown Music Society’s favoured venue, the St Andrew’s Drill Hall, because it was just too cold – no, not for the sake of the audience or even the players, the instruments
simply wouldn’t stay in tune during rehearsals – the wind plus piano ensemble made the Rhodes Music Department’s Beethoven Room their home on Wednesday night.
Shunning the rather earnest Grave official opening movement of Beethoven’s Quintet in E-flat for Piano
and Winds was no loss – instead the Andante cantabile made a warm, delicate welcome to the hour-long performance.
In this work, Beethoven was inspired by Mozart’s Quintet K452, also in E-flat, written in 1796, and wrote it five years after Mozart’s death. In overall texture and gesture this work is more than a nod to his predecessor.
The ensemble’s weave wasn’t the closest in the final Rondo: Allegro ma non troppo, letting in the cold here and there. The opposite was the case with the last and longest work in the concert, Joseph
Rheinberger’s 1884 Sextet for Piano and Winds in F Major, which was an embroidered quilt of colour, blended texture and sheer warmth of tone.
But what everyone in the packed room had been waiting to hear was the world premier of Potchefstroom-based composer Hannes Taljaard’s special commission for the Sixth National Grahamstown Music Competition, which began yesterday.
The group played only three of the four movements of Chansons a Boire (Drinking songs). Taljaard explained later that he’d only managed to get the last movement to the sextet on Saturday and they’d
decided there had been too little time to practise. So we heard Choral, Complainte and Preambule.
With a hymn-like fabric holding them together, the solos making up the opening Choral resembled character sketches of each instrument – and that was no accident. “I wanted them to say, ‘That’s my instrument,’” Taljaard said in an informal chat after the performance. He was referring to the young competition entrants he’d had in mind while composing it – many of whom were at the concert.
Given the general theme of inebriation, memories of a drawn-out rebuttal by some aggrieved party representative on the radio that morning were conjured by Complainte. Except the difference between
a drunken monologue and a political solo is that one is often quite entertaining. Preambule was played
last and also featured delightful solos – notably for pianist Catherine Foxcroft and flautist Liesl Stoltz.
Foxcroft’s bar-room piano turn drew chuckles from the audience, much to Taljaard’s delight. “I’m glad people identified with it,” he said, explaining that a work by French composer Francis Poulenc had inspired him in the way it had spoken directly to its 1920s Paris audience. He had aimed to modify his musical language to make something just as accessible and interactive in a modern context.
“This work was written in one university town (Potchefstroom) for another (Grahamstown),” he had written for the programme notes. “It’s like a drunken conversation,” he said after the concert, explaining the form. “The disconnectedness is like when someone tells a joke – no one understands, so someone
else tells a funny story which gets interrupted. Nothing gets quite finished.”
Definitely not a “serious” piece of music, Taljaard said. “More like Poulenc on steroids.” Taljaard took three weeks to complete the commission, working seven or eight hours a day. He began thinking
about it in January, when Foxcroft suggested he write something for the Grahamstown Sextet.
With its rapid changes of mood, delightful solos and plentiful musical and cultural references, it went down like a good glühwein on a cold night. It was a fun filler in a concert that served as a reminder of
how lucky Grahamstown is to have performers of national and international calibre.
Boris Mohr (horn), Hilary Mohr (oboe), Jenny Truter-Brand (clarinet) and Foxcroft (piano) all teach at
local educational institutions. Stolz teaches at the SA College of Music at the University of Cape Town and Liesl van der Merwe (bassoon) is a teacher at North-West University (Potchefstroom) and conducts
the North-West Youth orchestra.
It was a privilege to listen to professionals perform on our doorstep – warming us up for Festival which is exactly two weeks away.