Isaac van der Merwe piano

Peta Stewart

Since the CPO’s aim is not only to take music to as many diverse communities as possible, but also to give as many talented performers the opportunity to perform with a full symphony orchestra, choosing one of South Africa’s most accomplished young pianists, Isaac van der Merwe, as a soloist in the Winter Symphonies season at the City Hall was a no-brainer.

Isaac, who at the age of 21 has already performed with the CPO on several other platforms especially during competitions, makes his mainstream symphony concert debut in an event to commemorate Youth Day on Thursday, 20 June, 2024. He will perform the Grieg Piano Concerto, accompanied by the CPO and its principal guest conductor, Bernhard Gueller. Gueller will also conduct the Grieg Holberg Suite and the 7th Symphony by Dvořák’s.

An icy grandeur

For Isaac, who says he has a vivid visual imagination, forming a personal connection with Grieg and the concerto began with looking at pictures of Grieg’s homeland and his picturesque coastal hometown, Bergen.

“To me, the first movement isn’t a display of virtuosic powers but an expansive Norwegian landscape. The iconic opening has an icy grandeur. The first theme has all the stately, almost impersonal majesty of great natural beauty. The intimate second theme, in contrast, has a warm, conversational friendliness perhaps redolent of a small Norwegian town, and between the two themes, the bitingly mischievous transitory material reminded me of the northern lights. We can’t say for sure that Grieg thought of these images when producing the music, but an artist is inevitably shaped by their cultural context and surroundings, and these mental pictures have proved helpful to me in my interpretation of the piece.

“What is more certain, however, is that the lively third movement was influenced by the halling, a brisk Norwegian folk dance. Grieg often drew on the traditional music of his homeland, and the three-note descending motif that opens the concerto – a series of intervals that is seen throughout the piece, and, indeed, throughout Grieg’s oeuvre – is characteristic of Norwegian folk music.”

Not just a pianist

He started his musical journey learning percussion with Frank Mallows at Beau Soleil Music Centre in 2012. Two years later, at the age of 11, he began learning piano with Tessa de Groote, and in 2015 he took up cello with Maya Maille at Beau Soleil, playing in the Cape Town Philharmonic Youth Orchestra for a number of years. In 2021, then 17, he started piano lessons with Albie van Schalkwyk, and won his first competitions, including first prize in the Senior Piano Category of the Johann Vos, and overall winner in the Pieter Kooij competition.

“As a kid I loved to draw and write. As soon as I learned to read music, I tried to write my own.” The CPO in fact read one of his pieces some years ago and musicians were impressed!

He has now settled on the piano, which he considers to be a more meaningful challenge (though he says he wasn’t very good at the cello!)

“I love the repertoire. Piano music requires the performer to present not only the melody but any material that supports the melody – harmonic and rhythmic accompaniment, chords, the bassline, or even multiple melodic lines at once – you are required to understand the structure of what you’re playing. The vast majority of great classical composers were pianists, perhaps due to the fact that the instrument afforded them the opportunity practically to understand the entirety of a musical texture.”

Although Isaac has already achieved a lot, he has a long way to go, he says.

“I’d just like to be better, but my tentative dream is to reach a point in my pianism and ability to compose where I can write and perform a worthwhile piano concerto. I do think I might have something to say but the process of composing in the classical idiom is so so hard and so so time-consuming.”

For now, there’s not much time. He is in his 3rd year of B Mus in Piano Performance at the SA College of Music studying with François du Toit, after which he would like to undertake a post-grad in England or Germany.

For Isaac, it’s not performance OR composition – he’d like to do both. “Composers these days aren’t always performers, and you can hear this in their music. I believe that unless a composer is grounded in the relational discipline of playing an instrument for an audience – as the composers of the past were – they will not be optimally equipped to successfully communicate specific musical meaning through the performers playing their music.

“Like anything worth loving, the process of learning music is as often a pain as it is a pleasure. A piece is like a person, and unless you as a performer acknowledge your responsibility to engage with its personhood, to be respectful of its unique identity and curious about the values that make it work, you won’t really get along with it. When you’re angry with a piece you won’t solve your problems with it. Additionally, you cannot simply get to know the piece without becoming vulnerable yourself – it has to know you. Loving music is like loving a human being in the sense that it is as much work as it is play, and valuable not chiefly because it is pleasurable but because it is a relational challenge that can draw you closer to truth.”

What: CPO Winter Symphonies at the City Hall
Who: Isaac van der Merwe (piano); Bernhard Gueller (conductor). The Cape Town Philharmonic Youth Wind Ensemble will also perform a side by side with the CPO under the baton of Charlene Verster, supported by the City of Cape Town.
Thursday, 20 June 2024, 7.30pm
Tickets: Webtickets  and Artscape Dial-a-Seat 021 421 7695 . Dress rehearsal