Christina McEwan

After a great collaboration with Bernhard Gueller and the Johannesburg Philharmonic in March, Ben Schoeman is delighted to be with the Cape Town Philharmonic and Gueller again, performing the Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto no. 2 at the City Hall on 16 June 2022. “I look forward to performing under his expert guidance,” he says. Gueller is looking forward to “another wonderful collaboration with a superb and very musical pianist”.

Schoeman’s always glad to be back. “I have had the enormous privilege of honing my craft as a pianist by playing with the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra,” he says. “Rimsky-Korsakov, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Liszt nos. 1 and 2, Brahms nos. 1 and 2, Saint-Saëns are some of the concertos I have performed. These performances have been the highlights of my career and it is always an exhilarating experience to walk on stage at the Cape Town City Hall. I am very grateful to Louis Heyneman and his team for steering this ship during the very difficult times of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

When asked about the greatest musical influence on his life, there was no hesitation.

“I could say that Beethoven has inspired me all my life and keeps doing so every day.” Having said that, he has chosen to perform Saint-Saëns with the CPO.

“Saint-Saëns epitomises for me the glory of Romantic pianism – all his works for piano and orchestra are beautifully crafted and full of colour and emotion. I have played a lot of his music, and I have found that each of his works is quite different in its construction and character. The Second Concerto is an eclectic mix of the composer’s wide musical interests. Liszt called him the ‘greatest organist in the world’ and it is thus not surprising that JS Bach’s linear and improvisatory elements appear. Then there is the French drawing room, with all its perfumed splendour and charm in the second movement. The last movement is a diabolical tarantella – here the visceral and operatic Saint-Saëns comes to the fore. I greatly admire his opera Samson and Delilah and the Second Concerto is a precursor to the dramatic expression in his later works. “

Ben Schoeman. Picture Zach Gerard
Ben Schoeman. Picture Zach Gerard

Growing up with music at home

“As a child growing up in Pretoria, my parents often took me to concerts – ballet, symphony, recital and opera. The SABC used to broadcast wonderful classical music programmes, and I saw David Dubal’s excellent documentary The Golden Age of the Piano when I was very young. That was a certain catalyst and kindled my fascination with and preference for the old-school pianists such as Rubinstein, Horowitz, Arrau, Padarewski, Brailowsky, De Pachmann and others. Discovering Sviatoslav Richter’s Schumann-recordings amongst my parent’s LP collection sealed my determination to become a professional musician.”

He went on to study at the University of Pretoria, the Accademia Pianistica Incontri col Maestro in Imola, the Scuola di Musica di Fiesole in Florence and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. He was awarded a doctorate in music by City, University of London and the Guildhall School of Music & Drama with a thesis on the piano works of Stefans Grové, who dedicated his Concerto for Piano, Cello and Orchestra Bushman Prayers (2013) to Schoeman and cellist and duo partner Anzél Gerber. They premiered this work with the CPO and KZNPO.

But he was winning awards much earlier, taking Gold in the 11th UNISA Vodacom International Piano Competition, Pretoria (2008), Gold in the Royal Overseas League Music Competition, London (2009), the Standard Bank Young Artist Award (2011), the contemporary music prize at the Cleveland International Piano Competition, USA (2013), and the Huberte Rupert Prize from South African Academy of Science and Art (2016).

His career has taken him to many countries and famed venues as a chamber musician and soloist like Carnegie Hall, the Wigmore, Barbican, Cadogan, LSO St Luke’s and Queen Elizabeth Halls in London, the Konzerthaus in Berlin and the Gulbenkian Auditorium in Lisbon.

Schoeman was appointed a senior lecturer in piano and musicology at the University of Pretoria in 2018, and today divides his time between teaching musicology as well as piano and of course performing.

“It can be tough to walk on stage to perform during or after a busy week of academic activity. Effective time management is of the essence. I also enjoy recording compact discs, and this amalgamates my academic and pianistic interests as I often have to do a lot of research on performance practice and on the analytical and editorial complexities of the music.”

Living in London for much of the year has definite perks, and for Schoeman the possibility of going to the theatre is definitely one.

“The theatre greatly captures my imagination. Living in London means I can go and watch Shakespeare at the Barbican. I am a visual arts enthusiast and really love visiting museums and art galleries. In musical terms, I love to listen to many recordings and especially vocal works (opera, oratorio, art song) as this impacts my playing and perspectives on phrasing and sound. In my free time, I enjoy walking in the beautiful parks near my home – nature has a calming effect on me.”

He is quite happy with the fact that “the path of a musician never stops – there is so much repertoire to learn. And then there is also the constant process of improving and perfecting one’s existing repertoire. I believe that achieving things in life depends on luck, good health, and very hard work.”

On this trip he is also teaching a music history module on Late Romanticism and Early Modernism at the University of Pretoria – Saint-Saëns features as well. “It is a great privilege to share my passion for the great composers with my students.”

Then it’s back to London to work once more with duo partner Tessa Uys, completing the recording of all Beethoven’s Symphonies transcribed for piano duet by Xaver Scharwenka for SOMM Recordings – two of six albums have already been released. “We are going to record Beethoven’s monumental 9th Symphony in July, so we are practising very much in preparation of this. In the second half of the year, I am returning to South Africa to give solo and chamber music recitals in Johannesburg, Potchefstroom, Pretoria, Cape Town, George, Knysna and Bloemfontein.”

Who: Pianist Ben Schoeman
What: CPO Winter Symphonies
Where: Cape Town City Hall, 16 June 2022, 8pm
Tickets: Here and Artscape Dial-a-Seat 021 421 7695
Dress rehearsal: Here. 16 June 2022,R125