Oboist James Austin Smith. Picture: Laura Edwards

Peta Stewart

We know that Cape Town is an attractive tourism destination, but to oboist James Austin Smith it is more than that – it’s almost like home. He’s here from New York via Berlin to perform with the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra, opening its Winter Symphonies at the City Hall season on 6 June, 2024; to give a recital for Cape Town Concert Series on 8 June, and to present a master class at UCT with students and Cape Town Philharmonic Youth Orchestra musicians on 14 June.

Mozart Oboe Concerto

Playing the Mozart Oboe Concerto is exciting for him. “It’s one of the absolute foundations of our repertoire – a work we study from a very young age. My context for the work has developed over the years, having had the good fortune of performing the many oboe chamber music works of Mozart many times. That experience has deepened my understanding of the composer and, by extension, the concerto – and has made it truly meaningful to me as a performer.”

The CPO will be conducted by Conrad van Alphen, who will also direct the Schumann Overture, Scherzo and Finale and the Tchaikovsky Symphony No 6, Pathetique. The concert will open with musicians of the Cape Town Philharmonic Youth Orchestra joining their professional colleagues in a side-by-side performance of a Dvorak Slavonic Dance, supported by the City of Cape Town,

The Concert Series recital is somewhat bittersweet, because it will be the last appearance in Cape Town by pianist Luis Magalhaes. Luis is leaving soon after that for Portugal, and he will be missed on the South African stages.  The duo will present works by Clara Schumann, Brahms, Still, Neilsen, Britten, Saint-Saȅns. Grime and Lanzilotti.

James Austin Smith. Picture: Laura Edwards CPO
Oboist James Austin Smith. Pictures: Laura Edwards

No stranger to South Africa

“ Over the dozen plus visits I’ve made to South Africa,  I’ve developed a deep love for the country’s diversity, its complicated history and the dogged optimism that keeps it going. Not so different from the United States, in fact. And who wouldn’t love a braai?”, he asks. He also adds that he loves I love great food, great wine and great coffee, all of which the South Africans do exceptionally well!”

Not just an oboist

“I am fortunate to have a musical life full of variety from performing to curating, hosting and teaching. I teach graduate students at Stony Brook University in New York and as a regular guest lecturer at the Guildhall School in London). Then there’s the music that I play (old, new, solo, chamber music), or the research projects that have recently become a part of my artistic practice – it’s the variety that keeps life as a musician fresh and fulfilling,” he says.

Since his first visit to South Africa in 2011 when he first performed at the “ marvellous Stellenbosch International Chamber Music Festival”, he has been back many times. Including one tour with Decoda, the affiliate ensemble of Carnegie Hall, “of which I was both a member and co-Artistic Director for a number of years. With Decoda we had the chance to perform in different settings all around the country, from Durban to Sasolburg to Soweto to Joburg to Khayelitsha to Stellenbosch.

Something of a purist

James is a purist when it comes to music, and not about composers or periods. “It’s all about engagement,” he says. “Is the music engaging, is the performance engaging? Music-making has to be compelling; it has to be necessary – it is when performers truly embody their necessity that the performance becomes something unmissable for the audience and of course the performer.”

This young man has a great world view. “I am increasingly interested in the thoughtfulness with which we approach the experiences we have in life – musical experiences especially, of course. I want to engage audiences on multiple levels – music is a balm in many ways, but it also asks questions, it bears witness, it stands as an historical document to a time and place. So how are we engaging with our audiences to deliver its layers? How are we exercising the full value, the full worth, of this great art, and making it relevant to the society that surrounds us? These are the questions that have been guiding my practice as of late – these are the answers I’d like to find.”

Apart from his Cape Town Concert Series recital, he will give a final recital with Luis in Knysna on 10 June, and perform with the JPO and KZNPO on 13 June and 20 June respectively.

What: Winter Symphonies at the City Hall / Cape Town Concert Series recital
When: Thursday, 6 June 6, 7.30pm, City Hall, Saturday 8 June, Baxter Concert Hall, 11am
Tickets: Here and Artscape Dial-A-Seat 021 421 7695. For CPO book here. The CPO dress rehearsal  to be on sale later