Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Grahamstown, and Back Again

So it seems that Grahamstown is strangely void of internet, except at the KFC on one of the main streets, which I unfortunately did not have the inclination to visit.

In any case, we are back in sunny warm Durban, after a wonderful, chilly week at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown.  Very early last week we met at the Playhouse in Durban and sleepily piled into a large bus that would take us to the airport.  A flight and a two hour drive later we arrived in the tiny college town of Grahamstown, and donned our coats, hats, scarves, and gloves (and for me several layers of leggings) since the weather there is hardly the picturesque Durban Beach weather - it rained quite a bit and temperatures were in the low 40s, if not colder at night.  The trip was quite an experience - since there are simply no hotels in Grahamstown (if you're wondering where the 100s if not 1000s of people stay when they come to this festival, I cannot tell you; I am wondering the same thing...) the entire orchestra was housed in a dormitory of Rhodes College, one of the premiere Universities in South Africa.  I met some people from other African countries, too - Zimbabwe (or Zim as natives call it, highlighting Africans' propensity to shorten everything to the utmost) and Ghana as well.  The dorm (or "res") was very typical, and I found it amazing that everyone seemed to more or less go about their business, bundling up in blankets while sipping sherry at night, and utilizing the one bathroom per floor as little as possible because it was, as you might expect, not amazingly comfortable and somewhat drafty.  An entire symphony orchestra housed in little quaint dorm rooms, sharing bathrooms, hanging out in the "top common" at night, drinking loads of tea all day to keep warm, hot water bottles under the sheets at night - I think more than anything else I got to know the personalities of the orchestra, which are varied and quite fascinating.  I was happy to have the chance to do so, and once the Wimbledon matches were over for the day, there was little else to do but hear all of these musicians' stories, drink their whisky, and come up with a few stories of my own.

I got to know a bit where people were staying and expected to see certain faces in the hallyway, at the dining room for breakfast (although my coffee needs seemed to surpass what was served there - I got up early and walked the five blocks to town for my double cappuccinos daily.)  We found a few consistent restaurants that were reasonably close to the dorm, our favorite being The Rat and Parrot, which as you can expect was a great dark paneled drinking pub with its own microbrewery and great pizzas and burgers.  For coffee there was haricots with amazing huge muffins, and for bigger breakfasts there was Cafe D'Vine, which humbly offered up a pretty atmosphere, white wood and white tables, ham, eggs, and croissants. 

When the festival started, we really had our work cut out for us, since many orchestra musicians were playing something like seven shows in three or four days; luckily my responsibilities included three Swan Lake shows and one opening symphony concert, both of which were housed in a hug theater on a hilltop.  The theater was so cold that I wore every black thing I owned every time I went into it, since I have trouble staying warm anyway.  We rubbed our fingers constantly to maintain some warmth in them and we even went on an expedition to buy fingerless gloves that I learned to play in expertly well during those mammoth ballet rehearsals and concerts.  Thankfully I love rooibos tea which was on hand at intermissions to warm us up, and as we huddled around the hot water jug we looked out upon the many crazily attired dancers that were running around the backstage area with makeup and feathers and capes and worn toe shoes.  We laughed a lot, about anything, about everything, and I am sure it got us through.  Tough conditions can really help you get to know people.  I am pretty sure that I am now best friends with the violinist that sits directly behind me, but she speaks no English, only Bulgarian, and kept taking my picture in the pit, completely drowning in scarves and hats and fingerless gloves.

When the festival started I didn't have much free time to see all the shows happening, and there were hundreds!  I did make it to the huge marketplace, where artisans were selling all kinds of beautiful clothing, jewelry, scarves, woodwork, antiques, food, and traditional crafts.  People were everywhere and the spirit was so interesting - cold but so busy.  I'd never seen such a huge festival in such cold drizzly weather.  But once I was in a cafe drinking my doppio when I overheard a South African woman say on the phone, "Yes, it is terrible that I am sick!  Just when we got to the festival, since it is so cold here!  But, you know, it just feels like Grahamstown..."  I began to understand the pride people have in this country and for this event.  We did make it also to a spellbinding magic show.  The young man performing was beautifully slick with his hands, and ran the full gamut tricks, without a miss.  Coins, cards, mind-reading and volunteers filled our happy minds for over an hour, and we left mystified.  Just a tiny show in a tiny blackbox theater and the quality was stupendous.

When we gathered our belongings to leave, the rain was falling again, and we piled once more onto the bus that would drive us the two hours from Grahamstown to Port Elizabeth from where we'd fly to Durban.  We were all ready to go, but I was realizing that if we'd been in Durban the whole time we would not have found out such things about each other, and I believe I am happier for it.  If I ever go back to Grahamstown, I will personally bring the entire city some heaters at no charge.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Greeting the Bochabelas
Leading the KZN Phil
Playing for the students

Concerts, Concerts and (it seems...) More Concerts

We love Kwa-Zulu Natal.  And we really don't want to leave.

It has been a busy week!  We will travel with the KZN Philharmonic to Grahamstown next week, and the departure date is fast approaching.  We leave Sunday at 5 am.  We will open the Grahamstown Music and Arts Festival with Brahms' Second Symphony, and do three shows of Swan Lake, in collaboration with the Cape Town Ballet, throughout the week.  We've been told that this festival is really something to be seen - many productions of theater, music, jazz, and markets appear in the village during this time, and we are really excited to get to walk around the town and see everything.  It will be awesome to be part of such a happening festival in South Africa.

This beginning of this week was spent in a practice room at the KZN rehearsal hall, hours and hours rehearsing just string quartets in preparation for our performance this past Wednesday night.  (Was that last night?)  The quartet recital took place in a beautiful and intimate chamber music hall at Howard College, at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, whose foliage resembles a jungle atmosphere and whose architecture boasts an open air meeting place right outside the hall.  We had a thorough dress rehearsal, and were especially excited about performing our 20th Century homemade "Suite" of movements - a piece we created ourselves out of five different 20th century composers: Bartok, Kevin Volans, Villa-Lobos, Ives, and Jennifer Higdon.  The Suite comprised many textures and styles but we ordered the movements in such a way that the whole work felt cohesive and sensitive, as a modern string quartet might sound.  We thought the most interesting transition was from the Villa-Lobos movement (which screams of the Rio streets at night) to Ives (which is an advanced take on the church hymn.) It was physically so momentous to finish the Villa-Lobos that we had to breathe a bit before starting the church movement form the Ives quartet.  We felt like it really showcased a raucous Saturday night in Rio before ending up in church the next morning - a typical Sunday morning in New England.  Many supportive and amazing KZN Phil members graciously attended our show, and the standing ovation we received at the end of the concert made us feel so welcomed as part of this talented community.  It was so much fun to perform in such a warm environment.  The night was chilled as we waited for our cab to take us back to the hotel, and there we toasted our last big chamber music performance in the SunCoast's dining room.  We eat here a lot - the staff is great and the food is great.  And we don't have to go anywhere at all.  The hotel staff is definitely getting to know us!

Today we've been resting after a morning rehearsal, and tomorrow hope to go the beach and pool before we leave for an 8 hour rehearsal day - we will perform with the KZN Phil as part of the festivities for the International Olympic Committee event on July 5 back in Durban, and for that rehearsals start tomorrow.  We also hope to read a young composer's string quartet during our dinner break!  We are looking forward to that. 

In other news, our fabulous violist, Brenton Caldwell, turns 30 tomorrow!  We will celebrate all day with candy, music, pizza and movies at David and Alison's house.  HAPPY BIRTHDAY BRENTON!

Friday, June 17, 2011

The quartet on Durban Beach, June 13
Just before our first rehearsal with the KZN Philharmonic, June 13

Thursday, June 16, 2011

June 16, 2011 - Maestro Lyk and KZN Collaborations

All week we've been in Durban, whose traditional name is 'Kwa-Zulu Natal,' from which the city's powerhouse symphony derives its name: KZN Philharmonic.  We arrived quite happy as we drove up to our hotel on Durban Beach on Sunday.  We had to hit the ground running, and literally jump into new surroundings, new faces, and new music - not to mention our immediately getting acquainted with a fiendishly talented 'call a spade a spade' conductor who would triumphantly lead us in the Youth Day Concert (which is now in about 3 hours and counting.)  By the way, that quote is verbatum - at our splendid dinner with Maestro Lykele Temmingh on Sunday night, he remarked, "Just so you know, I don't sugar coat anything.  I call a spade a spade."  I think we were all thinking that we had our work cut out for us, and simultaneously lifted our wine glasses for a toast.

We arrived for our first KZN Phil rehearsal early Monday morning, with enough time for our trusty guides and hosts David and Alison Plylar to show us around the facility where we would rehearse.  We took our seats at the front of each section, a bit wary at how things would play themselves out.  The room looked typical for an orchestra of this size - huge, bright, and with little comforts save a water cooler that sometimes had cups around it.  We started going over our passages and warming our fingers, and in a few moments, the advanced Bochabelas made their entrance.  I've never been so happy to see the familiar faces of the talented youths we'd coached in Bloemfontein!  As the students and Peter Guy, their director (also an accomplished and excellent double bass player who used to be the principal bass in KZN) made their way into the room, the quartet literally flocked to the group, and the chatter began - hugs and pictures, and "where are you staying?" and "when did you get here?" and on and on.  Eventually things simmered down, and everybody took their seats in the orchestra as the time approached 9 am and rehearsal commenced.  I met loads of smiling KZN Phil members, and was so thankful for how friendly and open the players were to invite us into their great orchestra, considering they'd just met us.  My stand partner was especially sweet, and we all felt quickly at ease in leading our sections inside this mammoth ensemble.  Lyk (as the players called him for short) dove into the repertoire, his indefatigable spirit barreling down on us as we read through Holst's Planets, and only guessing what would come next - dancing, singing, a little Afrikaans here and short, eventually we made it through the first day of rehearsal, and I felt heartened to think I only had to turn my head behind me to see my Bochabela kids smiling back at me from the middle of the second violins.  I was so proud of them, and so honored to be included in this orchestra.  I mean - for all intents and purposes, Holst isn't easy - for anyone!

On Tuesday we had our first nighttime rehearsal with members of the KZN Phil for our collaborative chamber music concert on Sunday.  We will perform George Onslow's beautiful chamber Nonet, (violin, viola, cello, bass, flute, clarinet, oboe, horn, and bassoon) and Beethoven's renound Septet,(violin, viola, cello, bass, clarinet, horn, bassoon) on Sunday at 11:30 am for one of the symphony's smaller chamber concerts.  I was so excited to get to know some players from the KZN more personally in this endeavor, and everyone sounded really beautiful.  We came home to the hotel on Tuesday night exhausted but happy - and starving.

The rest of the Youth Day rehearsals rolled by, and we are about to leave for the pre-concert lecture where we'll speak a bit about our musical training in the US, and the Bochabelas will perform a piece from their repertoire for those in attendance.  

It will be sad to say goodbye to Peter and the Bochabelas.  Their love for all kinds music is very inspiring.  I can't imagine that I'll see a group like them again for a very long time.  And now...on to the Youth Day Celebration at City Hall.

You can check out a press release about our residency here:

You can also check out an article about Bochabela and Peter Guy's Mangaun String Program here: