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SA’s young classical musicians have a stage to display their diverse talents

The National Youth Music Competition which is taking place this week in Parow, Cape Town is a cornerstone in the country’s classical music landscape.

The competition, which has been running for over 30 years, has seen many young eminent South African musicians emerge and impact on the country’s classical music scene in their own unique ways.

Some of these musicians who have gone through the competition’s refining fires include Pieter Schoeman, now leader of the London Philharmonic Orchestra; well known soloists Polina Burdukova, Liesl Stoltz and Megan Geoffrey Prins and musicians who are studying abroad, Jeffery Armstrong, Thapelo Masita and Eben Wagenstroom amongst others.

Founder and chairperson Michael Maas, a professional pianist and a former CEO of Artscape Theatre, told African News Agency (ANA) on Thursday that the concept for the competition came about in the early eighties.

“I realised that young South African classical musicians need a platform to expose their talents under competitive circumstances to prepare them for national and international competitions,” he said.

This platform, he added, would help young musicians to “further their musical careers”.

A young contestant Emilio February who plays a variety of percussion instruments said he was participating in his fourth year of competition while completing his Matric year at Pinelands High School.

February, who participated in the semi-finals on Thursday said for him, the competition was important because it enabled him to share his true feelings through his art.

“We are musicians and our pieces are works of art.”

Maas, who is also one of several adjudicators, said the level of playing at this competition where between 25 to 30 young musicians showcase their talents is “of an extremely high standard”.

He added that the type of instruments the musicians choose to play vary from year to year. To illustrate this point, Maas said the 2015 winner was a flautist, but this year, no flautists entered the competition.

For this year’s competition, Maas said they have seen four cellists, six pianists, a marimba player, a clarinettist, an oboist, a saxophonist, a bassoonist and a harpist.

This type of competition, he emphasised, is important because “we need to train professional musicians who can go on and play in orchestras, establish solo careers and teach the musicians of the future”.

Adjudicator Franklin Larey, a piano professor at the University of Cape Town agreed with Maas. The competition, he said, gives musicians exposure and “also helps them gain experience for future and international events”.

Sakhile Humbane a flautist who won the 2015 competition and a third-year musician student at the University of Cape Town is part of this year’s shadow jury.

He said being on the ‘other side’ of the competition has been an “eye-opening challenge as music is a very subjective thing, but I am learning a lot and the importance of trusting my own perceptions”.

The competition, Humbane said: “Is a valuable asset for music development in this country as it brings together some of the best young players and gives them an opportunity to learn from one another’s strengths to better themselves.”

He said that the opportunity the contestants have in the finals to play with a symphony is incredible and all the contestants benefit from the exposure they receive.

The adjudicators have a difficult task in judging the high standard of talent on display in each of the four rounds.

Judging the musicians, Maas said, is: “Very challenging because you want everybody to excel and do their personal best.”

He said the criteria guides the judging process. During the first two rounds, the contestants must perform four works from at least three different style periods, and one of these must be a South African work.

The contestants must follow the requirements within the given amount of time to perform, however how they order their pieces throughout the competition is up to them.

Larey shared that judging the musicians on one hand, “requires careful listening; it is difficult to judge different instrumentalists, but not impossible”. However, on the other hand, “it is also easy because we judge music making as well as technical prowess”.

National Youth Music Competition founder and chairperson Michael Maas with 2015 winner Sakhile Humbane (centre) and Brandon Phillips, Esteemed Conductor of The Cape Philharmonic Orchestra (right). PHOTO: Supplied
National Youth Music Competition founder and chairperson Michael Maas with 2015 winner Sakhile Humbane (centre) and Brandon Phillips, Esteemed Conductor of The Cape Philharmonic Orchestra (right). PHOTO: Supplied

Humbane said he was looking for musicality and the ability on the instrument technically.

He added that it was important to see if the musician could “really ‘make music’ and has the ability to connect with what the original composer is trying to say”.

The judges, he said: “Vote by secret ballot, with a score for each candidate.” The scores, he said, are then “calculated to determine the ranking order of the candidates”.

“I am amazed at every competition with how high the level of playing of our young musicians are. We hear extraordinary talent each time. I am deeply moved by the playing I hear at times,” Larey said.

While in the past South Africa’s classical music landscape was dominated by the white elite, Larey said this picture was changing over the past few years.

“A mere look at recent winners and competitors paints the real picture. Further, the composition of both the jury, and the shadow jury of young artists reflect our diversity.”

Maas agrees with this perspective.

“It may have started out that way, but in the last number of years we have seen young musicians, irrespective of colour, race or creed excelling and carving out their own niche in the classical music scene. This is a great inspiration!”

On desired changes for the country’s youth, Larey said he wants to see positive change, especially “more education and opportunities, especially at primary school levels and at all schools in our country”.

Humbane and February touched on the educational challenges students are currently facing across South Africa.

Speaking about the #FeesMustFall movement, February said: “The youth of South Africa should focus on trying to make a change in a less destructive way. If you destroy the locations of learning, you are in turn destroying your opportunities for learning in the future.”

February, who dreams of writing his own lyrics and composing his own music said he felt that compared to musicians abroad, “the opportunities available in South Africa are less, but we are slowly but surely catching up with them both in quantity and quality. There are so many upcoming musicians as well as opportunities. It makes me excited for South Africa’s future”.

Humbane shared that he thought the real issues for young musicians centred around gaining access to a classical music education as most people in South Africa “cannot afford access and being exposed to classical music”.

He said he would like to see government “provide a platform for more access, exposure, and investment in a good quality education in classical music for the broader South African community”.

The National Youth Music Competition takes place from October 11 to 15, and the final round will take place on Saturday, from 7:30pm – 9:30pm at the Hugo Lambrechts Music Centre in Parrow, Cape Town.

– African News Agency (ANA)

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