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Here Comes Treble: Musical Delights And Audiences

Every musical event in Johannesburg offers a combination of fascination, interest, beauty and amusement, no less the audience with their flamboyant dress and odd behaviour. What would we do without them?

Isabel Bradley relishes a fabulous week of musical abundance.

Last week was one of musical abundance. The first concert Leon and I attended was early on Monday evening, a recital by well-known Steinway Artist, Jill Richards at the University of Johannesburg. She walked on-stage, bowed, played three Preludes by Debussy, stood, bowed to acknowledge applause then continued in this traditional fashion until the end of the wonderful performance of three Liszt Ètudes and a waltz.

She spoke for the first and only time to introduce her encore. It was a superb performance, traditionally allowing the music to speak for itself, with no interaction between pianist and her knowledgeable audience other than the music.

On Wednesday evening, we attended the screening at a nearby cinema of Ambroise Thomas’ opera, Hamlet, performed by a marvellous cast at the New York Metropolitan Opera. It was fabulous, starting at eight in the evening and holding us enthralled until eleven. Then, just as Hamlet was about to sing to poor Yoric’s skull, the screen went black: there had been a power failure and though the backup generator quickly switched on the house lights, there seemed no way to screen the final scenes of Hamlet. We’re still waiting to hear from theatre management about when we can watch it again… It was a sad indictment of opera-lovers in South Africa that Leon and I were the only audience that evening.

On Thursday evening, I attended the initial rehearsal of my newly-formed trio of flute, ‘cello and piano. Peta-Ann, a long-term acquaintance played ‘cello, my regular pianist, Michael and I enjoyed a marvellous evening of music-making, fascinating conversation and laughter. Weber, Haydn and Gaubert flowed from our instruments in mostly gorgeous harmony, not quite note-perfect, but lovely enough to know we’re going to be a terrific team. The joy of good ensemble-work and interesting company was wonderfully warming to us... With no audience at all.

At lunch-time on Friday, Leon and I attended the Lunch-Hour Concert at Crawford College. The venue for these excellent concerts recently changed from a small theatre to a school hall, which is far less salubrious though the acoustics are better. This was a performance by Diva-par-excellence, Michelle Veenemans, accompanied by Gerrit Koorsen on ‘cello and Paul Ferreira on piano. The men arrived on-stage first, elegant in tuxedoes. Michelle made her grand entrance, sweeping through the gorgeous red-velvet curtains and sinking to the floor in a deep curtsey. Her shimmering pink ball-gown ballooned around her and diamantés glittered around her neck, dripped into her cleavage and dangled from her ears. It all seemed a little over-the-top for an audience seated on plastic chairs in a barn-like, multi-purpose hall.

Once the performance began, however, everyone was mesmerized by the fantasies Michelle wove with her voice. The first work was from Handel’s Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne: Eternal Source of Light Divine, a very difficult work, beautifully executed. The accompaniment was mellow and throughout the performance, piano and ‘cello replaced the orchestra with ease. Michelle announced her next Aria, “Ach Ich liebte” by Mozart, saying that this was a ‘bravura’ aria. The term ‘bravura’, she explained, means the singer must have a perfect technique and ‘a huge amount of courage’.

She proceeded to sing five incredible bravura show-pieces: first the Mozart, immediately followed by American composer Carlisle Floyd’s ‘The Trees on the Mountains’ from his opera Susanna. Then came Verdi’s Caro nome from Rigoletto and Victor Herbert’s ‘Art is Calling for Me’. Interspersed between these magnificent arias, Gerrit and Paul played short instrumental pieces, creating a pleasant contrast of sonorities and allowing Michelle a few moments to prepare for her next singing marathon. They ended the programme with Leonard Berstein’s ‘Glitter and be Gay’ from Candide.

What a virtuosic performance it was. Michelle’s voice floated up to the highest of notes with an ease and sweetness that is seldom heard, she became the personalities depicted in each aria, singing sheer emotion into every note: grief, joy, love, passion, fun and laughter. The audience loved every moment, though a mobile phone ring tone and two patrons leaving during the performance momentarily took our attention.

That evening we found ourselves at the opera again, live at the Johannesburg Theatre. It was Puccini’s La Bohème. The cast was young, their voices lovely but at times a little light for Puccini’s huge arias. Occasionally the over-enthusiastic orchestra overwhelmed the voices. The acting, costumes and sets were wonderful and we thoroughly enjoyed the evening.
Watching the audience milling about at interval was great fun. We stood on the balcony and looked down on women with multi-streaked hair visibly greying at the roots, which reminded me I need to visit my hairdresser.

A priest in long grey robes paced with folded hands among the glitterati, past women in sleeveless gowns shivering in the unseasonal cold, and others like me, dressed in layers of woollies to keep the cold at bay. Lace, satin and tuxedoes, jeans, tweeds and T-shirts, all paraded through the wide foyer, buying sweets and glasses of wine or snacks and cups of coffee.

Saturday evening was given to jazz. A favourite venue of ours, Olde ‘n New Antiques in Auckland Park, was host to a nonet known as The New Cool. Their manners on-stage were very different from the formal presentation given by Jill at the beginning of the week. For half an hour before the performance started, various members of the group moved about on stage; sax and trumpet played warming-up exercises, musicians joked, laughed, tried out runs and riffs and at this late stage began putting together their routine and testing the microphone.

During the performance, while other members of the band were performing, those waiting their turn chatted to each other or sipped wine or beer, and a couple of times, rolled their eyes at the length of someone else’s improvisation. The singer was a girl with a husky voice, whose peculiar mannerism of squeezing her eyes shut and wrinkling her nose with every moving phrase was rather unattractive. Her voice was pleasant and in tune, but frequently disappeared under the volume of the instruments, even though she used a microphone. The over-enthusiastic tenor saxophonist’s raunchy sounds drowned out even the trumpet’s efforts at times. The trumpeter seemed bored when he wasn’t actually playing, his high notes blared with shocking intensity, the remainder of his sound was surprisingly fuzzy and both his trumpet and his flügelhorn were dirty.

In contrast, the audience was even more fascinating than at the opera: futuristic hair-styles were in abundance, an otherwise normal-looking woman wore rose-tinted glasses, a black velvet smoking jacket over jeans and t-shirt and a shoulder bag with a brightly-beaded strap and front flap strung across her chest. She certainly stood out in the crowd. There were sequins and lace, strange hats and memorable faces.

They were relaxed and appreciative and, though they chatted on and off, they were better behaved than the performers.
Next day, we returned to the antique shop for a trio-recital of violin, ‘cello and piano. The three musicians obviously enjoyed working together, and their enjoyment shone through their music, creating a fresh and crystal-clear performance of all four of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons concerti, followed by a warm and passionate rendition of Piazzola’s Four Seasons tangos.

This audience was also fun to watch. An old couple slept through the entire four concerti by Vivaldi. His bearded chin fell gently to his chest, resting there quite comfortably. His wife seemed less comfortable, her head worked its way backward, stretching her neck, and her mouth fell wide open. Thankfully she didn’t snore…

Various people, including me, dozed during the Vivaldi, the gorgeous sounds relaxing us. During interval, we met a lady blacksmith who is ‘creating a table’. From her description it is to be a functional sculpture, in which she would like to include one of the elegant wood-and-brass music stands which Leon is making in collaboration with a cabinet-maker. The sculpture’s theme is ‘creation’, and our blacksmith said, “I think creation began with music – music is the basis of everything!” She is a woman after my own heart.

We bumped into an acquaintance of Leon’s from some years ago. Roy had a sharp, fashionably unshaven face, piercing blue eyes behind white-lined spectacles, and a large diamond stud in his left ear. His wife, Marieta, wore a caftan and a blanket of many colours across one shoulder. At one time, Leon said, he’d owned a Harley-Davidson motorcycle with a portrait of himself beside a lake, painted on the petrol-tank. He’s a geologist and his wife recently started studying the ‘cello; explaining their presence in the audience; her teacher was the ‘cellist in the trio.

To close the circle of musical events, Leon and I spent Monday morning at the home of my first flute teacher, Chippy Yutar. Chippy is nearly ninety years old and still teaches flute and piano, plays the piano, and drives her big, dented old Mercedes around the streets close to home. One of her current pupils, Ghita, is a friend of mine, and she, Chippy and I played trios all morning. Ghita and I were on flutes and Chippy on piano, while Leon turned pages for Chippy and flirted with her outrageously.

What fun and laughter we had, though we sight-read some truly convoluted and deadly-boring Bach trios originally written for two violins. We agreed that violinists are to be pitied, if that’s the kind of music written for them. Leon admitted to nodding off while ‘concentrating’ on page turning.

Of course, our musical activities didn’t end there, we merely moved smoothly from one week’s treats into the next, another week of rehearsals, concerts and musical riches.

Every musical event in Johannesburg offers a combination of fascination, interest, beauty and amusement, no less the audience with their flamboyant dress and odd behaviour. What would we do without them?

Until next time…. ‘here comes Treble!’

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By Isabel Bradley


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