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From strength to strength: The Johannesburg International Mozart Festival

From strength to strength: The Johannesburg International Mozart Festival

As the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival began, J. BROOKS SPECTOR spoke with this year’s composer in residence, Peter Klatzow, and went to listen to some of the concerts that featured new music by South Africans. And was delighted to hear it all.

Now in its seventh year, the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival continues to grow in strength, variety and interest, and has become a must-attend event on the Johannesburg cultural calendar. The brainchild of South African conductor-impresario Richard Cock in tandem with its artistic director, German pianist Florian Uhlig, the festival presents over ten days’ worth of varied concerts, recitals, master-classes, and even a few panel discussions.

While the connections to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – the ostensible core of the festival – can sometimes seem a tiny bit obscure, it doesn’t really matter, given the excellent quality of the performances so far. The final concert on 8 February includes two works by South African composer Peter Klatzow (including a world premiere), as well as the all-too-infrequently-heard Beethoven Choral Fantasy, a work that makes use of a full orchestra, piano soloist, and some serious vocal resources.

Richard Cock explained that each year, festival artistic director Uhlig selects a thematic approach. This year it is the theme, “masquerade”, spinning out from the legendry, now-lost Mozart death mask, as well as the importance that masks and masquerades have always been as inspirations for so much music over the centuries. Accordingly, much of the music performed at this festival comes from Mozart’s pen or deals with or is inspired by masks – or both. And there is also a growing component of contemporary “classical” music as part of the festival as well, including a composer in residence. This year the honour falls to Peter Klatzow.

As a result of his senior status among South African composers and being this year’s festival’s composer in residence, many of his compositions have been incorporated into the festival’s concerts and recitals, including new works especially composed for the JIMF. Klatzow’s work runs the gamut from intimate solo piano works to chamber, vocal and orchestral works, including many that make innovative and effective use of the marimba – that most African of instruments.

Two recitals that have been part of the first half of this year’s festival showcased a whole roster of South African contemporary composers in addition to Klatzow. At the first, in a solo piano recital performed by Renee Reznek, the pianist offered Eric Satie’s Preludes flasques and Claude Debussy’s Images pour piano book 2 and Masques to set a modernist but already century-old tone. It then included Australian composer Sadie Harrison’s, Par-feshani-ye Eshq (in the Afghan language, Dari, for “the fluttering wings of love”), Neo Muyanga’s Hade Ta Ta (Sorry Father), Klatzow’s Barcarolle, and Hendrik Hofmeyr’s Prelude Umsindo from Partita Africana. Reznek’s technique is formidable and her respect and obvious love for these varied works came through strongly throughout the evening with these very varied, but always-intimate works. The main connection among them all seemed to be the many different ways these piano works have pushed the tonal boundaries, but without necessarily being the kind of outrageously experimental, harsh, or strident music that can terrify the unwary.

If Satie and Debussy’s works looked forward to what was coming in the music of the 20th century, Klatzow’s work was a subtle embrace of Arnold Schoenberg’s early work, Opus 11, in a form that is more usually seen as a lyric, even gently rollicking dance form. Harrison’s work was built around the words of some Afghan Dari poetry, while Muyanga’s composition recapitulated Nelson Mandela’s journey from prison to freedom, drawing on motifs and shards of traditional melodies, but designed as a kind of apology for the country’s inability to respond fully to the late president’s leadership. Hofmeyr’s work, meanwhile, turned the usual dance form of the partita into a work that drew on South African sounds and aural textures.

A few days later, at an afternoon session at the Goethe Institut, the opportunity to compose for a small ensemble, – violin, cello, flute, bassoon and marimba – was given to three young, promising South African composers, Matthew Dennis, Antoni Schonken and Diale Peter-Daniel Mabitsela, to create short works that responded to photographic images created by Lebohang Kganye. The three works were surprisingly different, one drawing upon the textures and influences of minimalists like Steve Reich, a second on some Asian sonic influences and the third making reference to African motifs – but all somehow conjuring a connection to Kganye’s photographs that were a reach back to family history and family stories about the great migration to Johannesburg.

The composers – plus Peter Klatzow and project curator Mika Conradie – then joined for a panel discussion to allow audience members to get inside the composers’ creative impulses. As an innovative way to end the program, the three works were then performed a second time, giving the audience opportunities to listen again, this time more knowledgeably, having heard the composers talk about their works, and having been challenged by both audience members and Klatzow to talk openly about their own creative energies and difficulties.

The remaining week of the festival offers yet more chamber recitals, vocal master-classes, piano recitals and full-scale orchestral concerts, including performances by renowned flautists Sir James Galway and Lady Jeanne Galway and the Zurich Chamber Orchestra, all on tour to South Africa. And all of this comes before the final concert with yet more works from Klatzow, including a new commissioned composition, All People Become Spirit People When They Die (from the poetry of the /Xam people), together with the Beethoven Choral Fantasy.

The program brochure literally overflows with information about the works, the composers and the ideas behind these various innovative programs beyond the standard recitals and concerts. And it includes a full list of Peter Klatzow’s compositions that covers seven pages in some seriously small type. All of this vividly demonstrates Klatzow’s astonishing productivity and versatility as a composer, as well as his love for instruments like the marimba, in addition to the more usual orchestral or vocal resources.

Beyond much more ambitious, large-scale works, some of Klatzow’s more intimate vocal works also make use of the haunting /Xam poetry that was recast by poet Stephen Watson and that had been drawn from the 19th century archive of /Xam chants and verse that had been collected by WH Bleek and Lucy Lloyd in Cape Town from a group of colonial era /Xam prisoners. Then there is also his setting of the well-known child’s tale, Tintinyane, he set for narrator and orchestra. All this has come in addition to Klatzow having had a full career as a professor of music and composition at the University of Cape Town.

In conversation just as the JIMF was beginning, Peter Klatzow discussed his music, his career, his love for the marimba, and his apprenticeship with the legendary, redoubtable French instructor who inspired and guided literally generations of composers from all over the world, Nadia Boulanger. (The Boulanger legacy reaches back rather far – Nadia Boulanger’s father was performing on the piano while Beethoven was still alive.)

Asked about his (and others’) return to tonality from all those more avant garde compositional ideas that used to be so popular, Klatzow explains that back in the 1970s it somehow seemed very important to be that way but that someone like Karlheinz Stockhausen seems to have had less of lasting effect on new music than composers seemed to think at the time. The comment by American composer John Adams that he found his muse when he heard Jimi Hendrix provokes Klatzow to laugh and explain the “book” on Adams is he is a minimalist who actually hates minimalism.

Klatzow goes on to say the problem with minimalism is it has very little in the way of real melody. Rather, it is all about harmony and rhythm, but it treats melody as a kind of an abandoned romantic notion. But surely most people listen to music for a melody? “Yes,” he says, “it is very important.” And so, yes, he has re-embraced melody, tonality, rhythm – and pulse. “Our hearts beat, that’s the basis, and it is the core of our understanding.”

As to which composers Klatzow feels warmest to now, he immediately says, “Beethoven and Schubert.” (He too is writing songs now; something that Schubert did in such a masterly way, Klatzow notes.) As for Beethoven, when Klatzow taught composition, he would take that well-known piece by Beethoven, Fur Elise, the work that every piano student has had to learn, and he would put the initial bars of the piece on the blackboard and then he asked students to compose their own versions from those initial moments. Of course, the students’ versions always came out second best to Beethoven’s, but that was to be expected, given Beethoven’s mastery of musical form.

And in fact, Klatzow says, that is what is such a nourishing element of Beethoven’s work, that sense of form. His late string quartets set the frame for a composer like Gustav Mahler, who came along so many decades later. Klatzow says that those silences in his late quartets are crucial. People don’t understand how important they are in music. By contrast, he always looks to Schubert for his sense of melody and tonality. Klatzow then adds that when you write atonal music you just don’t have that anymore, and so that brings one back to tonal techniques. “I go out of tonality for a sense of departure, but then there is a sense of return.”

Asked if he and another major South African composer, Kevin Volans, are not on the same key about all this? Perhaps in contrast to Volans, Klatzow replies, “I love the full orchestra and the use of it.” Going further about the circumstances of new composers in this country, he adds that so many young composers have little idea of how to use the full orchestra. Is there something of a fear factor on the part of younger composers, perhaps? Klatzow pauses, then he adds that may be a lack of compositional technique. Orchestration is not taught in South Africa very much. By contrast, in the US, it is taught as an ally of film music scoring. As a result, one gets exciting, lush orchestral music from people like John Williams, Hans Zimmer and Alexandre Desplat.

Still, the future for “serious” music is problematic. It certainly seems that, increasingly, orchestras and audiences lack the intellectual curiosity for new music. Perhaps there is something about new music that is alienating in some strange way. “Are we at the end of classical music?” he is asked. Klatzow replies, “No, I don’t think so, but the way we access music has changed. CD stores are shutting down. It has had its day. The CD was indestructible and once you bought a copy, you didn’t need to buy again and they have virtually run out of things to record. With forty-six versions of those Chopin etudes, why bother to do it again? And I climb onto YouTube [to look for things I want to hear] and if I really love it, I download it to an mp3.”

More broadly, what is the future of classical music in South Africa? Klatzow laughs and says he really can’t even answer for Europe. He asks, “Who is the Verdi of today? Why it is Andrew Lloyd Weber! People love it and he is doing what Verdi was doing for his audiences then.” Klatzow asks if the interviewer knows that famous retort from Verdi when he was asked what his theory of opera was and Verdi replied, “The audience must be full!”

Where did the urge for Peter Klatzow to become a composer come from? He is emphatic that it was not from his family. Instead, they tried to dissuade him from being a composer and musician, although they did relent enough to allow him to go to the Royal College of Music in London. Fortunately, he received sufficient scholarship assistance that his family was no longer encumbered by any financial demands from him.

His later studies with Nadia Boulanger were especially important to him eventually. He says that he had accidentally captured her attention by knowing something about an orchestration she was discussing during a guest lecture in London. As a result, she asked him to meet her early in the morning at the college to show her his compositions. She went through all his work and gave him careful advice – and that he should come study with her in Paris. Instead of taking up that invitation, unfathomably, he went off to Florence first. When he eventually contacted her to ask if it was still acceptable to join her in Paris, she replied, “Where have you been? Get on the train tomorrow!” And so he did. By this time, Boulanger had already taught generations of the most promising composers of the 20th century.

Returning to the current state of affairs in South Africa, are other composers doing interesting work here? Where is this compositional urge going here? This, Klatzow agrees, is a particularly vexing question. So much depends on what is being taught at universities. He laughs and says that when he was teaching at UCT, he used to say, “If you want to be a composer, if you want to write symphonies, prepare to be hungry for a long time, but in commercial music you can do well.”

There is still a great deal to listen to with this year’s Johannesburg International Music Festival. Check out the rest of the schedule and go for the classics as well as the new music on offer. But definitely go. DM

Photo: Mozart c. 1780, portrait by Johann Nepomuk della Croce


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