Hendrik Hofmeyr Symphony 11 The Elements, Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra,
Hendrik Hofmeyr

SYMPHONY CONCERT. Thursday, 7 September. At Cape Town City Hall. CPO conducted by Conrad van Alphen, soloist Marina Grauman: Hendrik Hofmeyr: Symphony II – The Elements (World Premiere); Sibelius: Violin Concerto in D minor, Op 47; Borodin: Symphony No 2 in B minor.

DEON IRISH reviews

This concert featured the premiere performance of a new and important work by established local composer Hendrik Hofmeyr, who is Head of Composition and Theory in the SA College of Music.

Hofmeyr wrote the work at the invitation of the orchestra to mark his 60th birthday; an event certainly significant enough to justify a fully-fledged symphonic essay. It is his second symphony, a 25 minute long work in four movements titled The Elements.

Thematic inspiration

A milestone birthday such as that being commemorated is certainly enough cause to reflect on the nature of Being; and Hofmeyr has turned to the Ancient Greek belief, first expounded by Empedocles, that the constituent elements of all matter were air, earth, water, fire or combinations thereof, for thematic inspiration.

The elements – each being depicted in one of the movements – appear in the order Air, Water, Earth and Fire – which might reflect an impetus more musical than historical, since the Classical sequence placed Earth first. But as conceived, the movement depicting Earth would have been quite unsuited as the opening movement (although it might arguably have made an even better conclusion).

The opening movement deals with air – sometimes described as “wind”, which might be particularly appropriate for the Cape. It starts with a stillness that is broken by the first stirrings of air that are to become a full-scale gale. These stirrings are depicted with harp and a pair of sinuous flutes: an aural image that for me is so redolent of Smetana’s nascent “Moldau” streams as to be rather destructive of the concept. However the gradual build-up to the climactic gale was effective, the final howling measures given added realism by the addition of a wind machine.

The second movement is a truly lovely depiction of water. Commencing with plump drops splashing onto parched earth, the overtly depictive movement conceals the technical achievement of a mirror canon in eighteen voices, with vocal entries being increasingly shortened to create the effect of a burgeoning squall.

Good company to be in

The water then flows into a lake bed, which gradually fills as the water almost imperceptibly spreads across the area. This episode was a highpoint: under a lush orchestral texture, the gradual broadening and deepening is achieved by an ever-widening 14 voice double canon. The movement ends with water spilling out from this confinement and emptying into the endless restlessness of the sea. Hofmeyr can be forgiven for moments that might have come from Debussy’s “La Mer”. Rather good company to be in.

The finest movement of the symphony is the wonderfully conceived contemplation of earth, and it is impossible to listen to it without the phrase “Earth to earth” passing through one’s mind. It is written – with appropriately sardonic humour – on a ground: a pattern of bass notes which repeats inexorably and on which a musical structure, varied in melody and harmony, plays out. It’s a device frequently encountered in contemporary jazz scores, and much loved by bass guitarists: but its origins go back to the early Baroque and – in its various guises – it has been employed by major composers of every period.

The great thing is to sublimate the ground to the musical argument, so that it becomes an almost subliminal element in the musical argument. Heard, as it were, but not noticed. Hofmeyr has achieved this wonderfully well in a score that radiates tension and dramatic build-up (we will overlook the horror engendered by the horns’ contribution) before concluding with a despairing descent into the very deepest orchestral registers attainable (with the double basses even tuning their instruments a tone lower) and a diminuendo that fades into an eternal stillness. Truly memorable!

Then the finale: the depiction of fire. It would surely not be fanciful to see this conception as depicting a rebirth following the demise at the conclusion of the previous movement; in the manner of a phoenix rising from the flames, or a soul meeting the refiner’s fire. Whilst it contains effective orchestral imagery and moments of brilliance, it did not – for me – overcome the sheer impact of the massive third movement, perhaps lacking in a clear thematic strength.

An important addition to the South African symphonic repertoire

Notwithstanding these reservations, this is a most important addition to the South African symphonic repertoire and one which I hope will be included in future programming by this, and other, orchestras. Van Alphen served the composer well.

Marina Grauman
Marina Grauman

The necessity of covering this new work adequately necessitates a somewhat truncated review of the other works. The Sibelius concerto received a very fine reading in the more than capable hands of 23 year old soloist Marina Grauman, playing a very fine 2016 copy of an 18th century Guaneri del Gesu.

Grauman has a big musical personality and a technique to match it. Her left hand is comfortingly secure – even the arpeggio passages displayed an enviable intonational accuracy and the multi-stopping was seemingly effortless – and her bowing arm produces a graded intensity that never appears forced.

She is occasionally a trifle wayward rhythmically, but nothing that cannot be ascribed to interpretive leeway. This did on occasion, however, lead to some slight insecurity of ensemble.

Of more concern was the finale – a movement which seems to be informed more by droll humour than exuberant delight. I found it all a little breathless, rather like someone telling a joke too quickly, in fear that the audience might lose interest. I think Grauman will become more aware in time of her undoubted ability to hold one’s attention!

The concert concluded with a thoroughly enjoyable reading of the relatively seldom heard Borodin Second Symphony.