Peta Stewart   

He had no chance – as according to old photographs, Xandi van Dijk was first exposed to classical music when his singer and singing teacher mother Susi van Dijk was pregnant with him. Then the newborn was strapped to her chest when she continued singing. That’s all on the one side. On the other the bloodline is Péter Louis van Dijk, composer, pianist, conductor – but more about that later.

Xandi will be in South Africa from 1 July 2022, when he arrives to conduct and perform in The Stellenbosch International Chamber Music Festival – for the 9th time. He’ll appear with the Festival Concert Orchestra on Saturday, July 9 at 8pm, and perform in and conduct several more.

See the full schedule here.

He loves everything about the festival – the “explosive joy” which the students and staff bring, the responsive audiences, the fact that he is responsible for bringing new commissions to life (this year it’s one by fellow South African expatriate Kathleen Tagg).

He’s also a champion of South African works and the latest CD he and his Signum  Quartet have just released include works by his brother Matthijs, one of South Africa’s leading composers, and Priaulx Rainer. “I love being there, drinking in the atmosphere, the people, the sun and the wine!”, he says.

Violist Xandi van Dijk
Violist Xandi van Dijk

String quartet is his passion

For someone who is so balanced about music and his life’s choices, he has a split life – he is torn between Europe and South Africa where his dad, his step-mom and brother live. Then in Europe he is torn by his 50% job as principal viola of the Munich Chamber Orchestra, his base in Bremen with the Quartet which whom he has been performing for 15 years, and Tallinn where his partner, pianist and arts marketer Kärt Ruubel and their young son Teodor, just 30 months old live. Then of course there’s the other 50% of his time that he spends in planes!

Kärt has just established a festival there, so that’s also a drawcard, as is the Estonian National Orchestra (ERSO) which he sometimes conducts. But it’s the family that’s important and he just loves hanging out with them. The bloodline will continue with Teodor, who will begin lessons at the end of this year, probably on the cello, if he doesn’t spend too much of his time translating Estonian into English for his father who admits to stumbling in it

Xandi is not so split about the path of his career …  while he does want to do more conducting, the string quartet is his passion and although he does teach and do master classes in Estonia he knows where he wants to be in 20 years.

“I want to play string quartets as long as I can. There is so much to be played, so much to be written, recording, new projects to be dreamed up, new collaborations. There is something about a string quartet that so special, so important. There’s the deep connection with the musicians, knowing what the others are thinking and sitting on the stage with them as a huge Schubert or Beethoven quartet unfolds.”

He began to ‘doodle’

He began to play the violin at the age of four but it wasn’t too long that he found the Suzuki method of all playing the same line unappealing and he began to ‘doodle’. With a maternal grandmother who was a violist in the Zürich Tonhalle and a maternal great grandfather who was leader of the Tonhalle but also played viola and left many violas that he had the opportunity to play, he soon switched and his teacher, Tamara Rennie, herself a violist, “ran with it”.

“My grandmother, Anne Essek used to order music from abroad for me, so I was very lucky to own many scores from an early age,” he says. “We used to play duos together and in between she told me lots of stories about playing under Furtwängler and Richard Strauss.”

In his spare time, and he has little of that (oh yes, he, also arranges music like Schubert lieder for String Quartet) he does enjoy walking, cycling, swimming and nature in general, as well as his secret pleasure – movies on Netflix!

June has been a busy month for him. Before coming to Stellenbosch the quartet performed in Berlin, recorded, participated in a music festival in Cleveland and another in Princeton, managed now by Marc Uys, his good friend, former colleague in the Sontonga Quartet here in South Africa, and now CEO of the Princeton Symphony.  After Stellenbosch it’s back to Tallinn to teach and play in the Pärnu Festival founded by Parvo Järvo in 2011, and then in his partner’s new festival. Somewhere in between there are appearances with the quartet in West Cork in Ireland and conducting the Estonian National Orchestra.

While Xandi only realised at the age of 13 that classical music was to be his future (he knew it would always be in music, but perhaps as a recording engineer, music journalist or, perhaps, an actor), it was attending a chamber music workshop at Noupoort Farm that changed his life. And the 1992 National Youth Orchestra course where he made friends for life. “I didn’t make the cut that first year, playing in the second orchestra, but I was hooked. I began aping conductors like Haitink, and my teacher at Beau Soleil music centre, David Snaith, indulged my curiosity about conducting at the age of 14 even allowed me to conduct part of a rehearsal. The bug for conducting bit deeper … Bernhard Gueller, who is conducting the Festival Symphony Orchestra on 8 and 10 July, gave me a master class and Gerhard Korsten let me have a go at another NYO course and I began to cover rehearsals for conductors at UCT.”

Like his father who also studied recorder and accordion, trombone and guitar and took cello and viola lessons from the principals of the Cape Town Symphony, Xandi is proficient at many other instruments such as guitar, bass, drums and trumpet which he played in many bands over the years. One thing he hopes will rub off on his father’s all-roundedness and let’s face it is has!

“We had many talks on the way to Stellenbosch where he drove me to my lessons with Jack de Wet, and I was always exposed to his warm and generous heart, and his sense of humour which extends to his compositions too, I am so looking forward to Nina Schumann performing his Beethoven or Bust in the festival this year on the same night as my concert. His philosophy has always been that music has to move you, I will never forget how he broke down in tears when writing Lux Aeterna for his Youth Requiem. It made a huge impression on me.”

What: Stellenbosch International Chamber Music Festival with conductor/violist Xandi van Dijk
When: 1 -10 July 2022
Tickets: Here