May 5, 2021

Princeton Symphony Orchestra Continues Series with South African String Ensemble

By Nancy Plum

Princeton Symphony Orchestra launched its penultimate online concert collaboration with South Africa’s Buskaid Soweto String Ensemble this past Friday with a virtual program of music for strings, harp, and solo voices. In a performance entitled “Curious Creatures and a Heavenly Harp,” the Soweto string orchestra, led by conductor Rosemary Nalden, performed music featuring both their own soloists and a well-known South African harpist. 

Seventeenth-century Italian composer Carlo Farina studied with some of the Baroque era’s leading composers. Considered one of the earliest violin virtuosos, Farina contributed significantly to violin pedagogy, especially through such works as the 1627 Capriccio Stravagante. This multi-section work called upon violins, violas, and cellos to mimic other instruments, as well as animals. These types of humorous works were not uncommon in the 17th century, and the Buskaid ensemble approached Farina’s piece with a refreshing playing style and easily finding the humor. In a rebroadcast from a 2018 concert, the musicians played triple meter sections especially gracefully, and the musical imitations of chickens clucking and cats yowling were particularly effective. 

French composer Claude Debussy came to the musical forefront as France was emerging from the 19th-century dominant Austro-German school. French composers of this era drew from art and their own language to infuse music with a wide range of instrumental colors, sinuous harmonies, and phrasing that mimicked the cadences of the native tongue. Debussy’s 1904 Danse sacrée et danse profane for solo harp and strings was commissioned by a French harp-building firm to showcase a newly-designed instrument. The sacrée portion of this work reflected ancient religious beliefs, with the second half of the piece inspired by the improvisatory style of Spanish dances. Featured in this performance by the Buskaid ensemble was harpist Jude Harpstar, whose performing career has crossed genres ranging from classical to pop. In a rebroadcast from a 2016 performance, Harpstar played with elegance, even when the music called for sharp and decisive harp passages. Conductor Nalden consistently maintained a subtle string accompaniment, with the second section of the piece particularly evoking spring in Paris. As with all of these expertly-recorded concerts, one could easily see the supple fingering of the soloist on the harp, as well as Harpstar’s expressive playing. 

Angela Morley’s Reverie for solo violin and orchestra also conjured a French atmosphere, with an extremely melodic solo violin part sensitively played by Buskaid violinist Mzwandile Twala. Without using excessive vibrato, Twala well handled the long melodic lines, as orchestra and soloist ended the piece peacefully. Twala was joined by double bassist Daluxolo Mqwathi in a performance drawn from 2017 of Fritz Kreisler’s Praeludium and Allegro, in the style of Pugnani. Gaetano Pugnani was an 18th-century Italian violinist and composer, and Kreisler’s work began in a straight-forward manner, with the solo violin part showing shades of J.S. Bach’s solo instrumental partitas. Twala maneuvered well through the sequential passages, including executing a fast-playing cadenza, and then moved across the stage to join Mqwathi as the piece morphed into free-form jazz for the two instruments. Mqwathi demonstrated solid command of the double bass and jazz style, and Twala gave a musical preview of a real future as a concert violinist. 

Felix Mendelssohn composed String Symphony No. 10 in B Minor at the age of 14, with the music showing both classical roots and the graceful melodies for which the composer was most well-known. In a performance rebroadcast from 2019, the Buskaid Soweto String Ensemble maintained an introspective character in the opening “Adagio,” moving well through precise and decisive scales in the subsequent “Allegro.” The closing “Più presto” was expertly played, with effective dynamic contrasts in repeated passages.

The Buskaid ensemble turned its attention to more popular genres in the closing portion of the concert, with music of American songwriters Johnny Green and Burt Bacharach. Buskaid member Mathapelo Matabane sang Green’s “Body and Soul” with a rich alto voice, pouring her heart into the music and accompanied by six string players. An improvisatory violin solo from Mzwandile Twala added to the slow jazz feel of the song. Cecelia Manyama, also a member of Buskaid, brought the Bacharach-Hal David classic “I Say a Little Prayer for You” to life with a saucy vocal style, accompanied by full string ensemble. Manyama was featured again in a selection from a 2014 concert of the traditional Zulu song “Noyama,” which asks the daily prayer “Are you going to Heaven?” Accompanied by strings, Manyama and the orchestra brought out the uplifting nature of the music through singing, playing, and movement. It was also fitting that some of Buskaid’s younger players were included in the ensemble, showing the organization’s pathway from training to performance.

Friday night’s virtual concert closed with a kwela instrumental piece heard previously in these broadcasts: Marks Mankwane’s Marks’ Special. Complete with street whistles and fast playing, this work is from a tradition of music which is not notated but passed on to younger players through visual and aural transmission. The joyous nature of the music was well apparent in the performance by the Buskaid ensemble, closing the concert with an inspiring message of musical hope for South Africa’s musical future.

Princeton Symphony Orchestra will present the last in the collaborative series with the Buskaid Soweto String Ensemble beginning Friday, May 28, with a virtual performance featuring music of Rameau, Mozart, and Shostakovich.  Princeton Symphony returns to a live series of concerts at the Morven Museum & Garden Education Center Lawn on Thursday, May 6 at 6 p.m.  Information about these performances can be found on the Princeton Symphony website at princetonsymphony.org.