What great company the Sasol South African National Youth Symphony Orchestra keeps. In amongst some of the world’s great orchestras such as Philadelphia Orchestra, Bonn’s Beethoven Orchestra, the Russian National Orchestra, the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie from Bremen and Leipzig’s famed Gewandhaus Orchestra, our orchestra, called the South African Youth Orchestra for the trip, proved as guests at the 2006 Beethoven Festival in Bonn that we are as good as it gets.
Seventy-five youngsters flew to Bonn and Berlin in September, following a sensational concert in the Lindner Auditorium in Johannesburg, and knocked the socks off discerning German audiences … twice. First, under conductor Conrad van Alphen they played the Huyssen Proteus Variations, commissioned by Deutsche Welle, the Beethoven Symphony no 5 and with bass Abel Moeng as soloist in the Princess Magogo Songs, transcribed by Mzilikazi Khumalo and arranged and orchestrated by Peter Klatzow. Then, under the direction of German conductor Peter Gülke, they played the Wellington Siege by Beethoven and the Symphony no 5 by Tchaikovsky.
As executive director Faan Malan said: “The musicians were focussed yet passionate. They played with the heart of a lion.”
The critics agreed. According to the Bonn newspaper, General Anzeiger, “the charm of the concert was not only in the passionate and engaged orchestra, but also in the special South African music. The real big symphonic performance was Beethoven’s 5th. The opening passage started with great fury and sprinted into a powerful coda. The orchestra and Van Alphen delivered a powerful interpretation … the orchestra had the virtuosity to pass safely through all the danger zones … they sparkled. The musicians had presence, charm and a triumphant spirit. The audience in the Beethoven Hall was completely won over, and they listened enthusiastically to the finale for a second time.”
Those remaining to watch a photo shoot were also won over by the kwela the musicians played, and guests at the after-concert party were completely bowled over by the spontaneous rendition of Nkosi Sikilel I’Afrika.
Others charmed include Dr Gero Schliess, head of music at Deutche Welle, who said that this orchestra is one of the best ever youth orchestras to appear at the festival. “We were particularly impressed with the energy that flowed and their feeling for style.”
Norbert Hornig, music critic of the German arts magazine Fonoforum, was really impressed. “The performance was enthusiastic, fresh, full of vitality and energy. I think Beethoven would have liked it. Not for a minute was I bored as the playing covered the dynamic range from breathtaking pianissimos to equally breathtaking fortissimos. The Beethoven symphony is a monumental showpiece and the youngsters made it their own.”
Hornig was also impressed with Abel Moeng. “Abel is fantastic not only as a singer but as an actor. He has a great voice with a lightness that’s extraordinary in every register.”
Festival director Ilona Schmiel was delighted at the mix of African and Western music, saying that the interpretation of the Beethoven in particular showed the power and the beauty of the South African landscape.
For Van Alphen, the musicians played better than many professionals. “Their energy was sparked and I could let them go.”
Veneta Smit, representative of the South African Embassy in Bonn was more than impressed. “Hearing you play makes me so homesick. I am proud of you!”
It wasn’t all work in Bonn – as part of the festival the musicians were invited to attend any other concerts taking place, and there were several world-class events around the town. While they rehearsed pretty much all of every day, the nights were their own, and they put these to good musical use – Lisa Batiashvili performing with the Deutsche Kammersimfonie Bremen gave a superb account of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, playing the modern Schnitte cadenza. The chamber group of 40 then played the Symphony no 8 by Beethoven, without conductor.
Many of our young musicians took the chance to hear two world-famous quartets perform – the Endellion and the Brodsky Quartets took part in a concert in which each played their own programme in separate rooms in the Bonn Art Gallery. The quartets then performed together. The young South Africans were fascinated by Lydia Kavina’s playing of the theremin, the first electronic instrument ever invented. Kavina was a pupil of the inventor, Leon Theremin. Some managed to fit in a visit to the collection of art curated from the Guggenheim museums around the world, and most visited the birthplace of Beethoven, the Beethovenhaus, where a collection of original notes, sketches and score for the Missa Solemnis was an exciting attraction.
After the second concert with conductor Peter Gulke, the entire group was treated to a magical Rhine boat journey past the Drachenfels, the dragon’s lair where the legendary Nibelungen myth is set, which Wagner set to equally legendary music, The Ring of the Nibelungens.
Then it was off to Berlin, by train, past castles on hilltops, to where another set of treats followed – first our National Youth Symphony Orchestra played in the marvellous acoustic of the Phillharmonie, home of the world-famous Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. After Conrad van Alphen directed the Huyssen piece, Swedish Maestro Herbert Blomstedt gave them other insights into the piece they knew so well – the Symphony no 5 by Beethoven. Here, they were joined by strings players from the Rias Youth Orchestra. This was followed by a party hosted by the South African Embassy. The next morning a coach tour around exciting Berlin lead into a rehearsal of the Deutsche Symphony Orchestra lead by Blomstedt (Bruckner no 5) and a concert, also in the Philharmonie, by the Bamberger Symphoniker, directed by Jonathon Nott. The Britten Violin Concerto was performed by South African-born Daniel Hope, now based in Holland. The main work, the Strauss Death and Transfiguration, still had many moved the following day.
For the musicians, the trip was beyond all expectations. Concert master Sarah Pudifin perhaps sums it up for all: “The tour was an incredible ‘growth’ experience for everyone in the orchestra. I can honestly say that when we left Johannesburg Airport, we were a group of 75 young and excited musicians from around the country, some friends and some strangers amongst us. However, coming home, we had developed in to a true, united and proudly South African Symphony Orchestra. The bonds between us formed by shared experiences and memories will not easily be broken.
“I think that not enough credit can ever be given to Deutsche Welle and the International Beethoven Festival for the unbelievable five-star treatment we received under their care. We truly felt like special and honoured guests, thanks to their wonderful hospitality and generosity. Also, the orchestra would not be in existence without the sponsorship of Sasol and for that we are extremely grateful. Last (but definitely not least) the members of SANYO deserve enormous recognition for the role that they play in ensuring that the orchestra lives on, in us and in the future generations of musicians who will come through and be touched by this amazing project.”
Finally, it was on to Athens and a day’s sight-seeing around the Acropolis for most of the group, exhausted but happy they had been privileged to be an intergral part of the great German music-making machinery.
South Africa must be proud of its National Youth Symphony Orchestra which proved to be a highly-professional winning team, both at the world-renowned International Beethoven Festival and during its performance at the revered Berlin Philharmonie.