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FRIENDS OF MUSIC: JOHN NTSEPE (article first published : 2007-01-11)

A classical piano recital by a black African musician is a something of a rarity in South Africa, and John Ntsepe’s performance for the Friends of Music at the Durban Jewish Centre was to a degree a pioneering event in Durban.

He lives and studies in Pretoria and started playing the piano at the age of fourteen, about a dozen years ago, I would guess. He has studied with various distinguished pianists here and abroad and has made public appearances in several parts of the country.

For his Durban recital he chose an ambitious and varied programme, displaying a strong talent and giving much pleasure to an enthusiastic and sympathetic audience. His best playing was in two big, dynamic works, Liszt’s Vallee d’Obermann and Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7 in B flat major.

The Liszt piece comes from the set called Années de pelerinage, years of pilgrimage, years (1835 to 1839) in which Liszt traipsed around Switzerland and Italy with his mistress, the Countess Marie d’Agoult. It portrays a nineteenth century romantic hero, and John Ntsepe captured admirably, with good tonal balance, the contrasts of Liszt’s typical fire and fury and the more lyrical episodes.

The Prokofiev sonata, dating from World War 2, is typical of the Russian master, with a spiky opening, a suave slow movement and a driving, rhythmical, sinister finale. Again the pianist demonstrated an imposing technique and a fine grasp of the form of the music.

This applied too, to a Chaconne by the 50-year-old South African composer Hofmeyr, who either has no first name or else is coy about using it. An attractive and interesting piece, convincingly played.

The pianist was less successful in Chopin’s Ballade No.2 in F major and the well-known The Maiden and the Nightingale by Granados. Perhaps he was nervous at the start of the recital; he seems to have a diffident and rather shy personality.

The first item, Alexander Siloti’s transcription of Bach’s Organ Prelude in G minor, was adorned by the unexpected appearance onstage of a bearded, red-shirted photographer who quietly stepped up behind the pianist and took pictures of him in action. Always something new out of Africa, as Pliny observed two thousand years ago.

The evening’s Prelude Performer, funded by the National Lottery Distribution Fund, was the 17-year-old violinist Gillian Bradtke, who has just completed her matric at Durban Girls’ College. She has a pleasantly unaffected and poised stage manner and she showed good intonation and phrasing in short works by Bach, Prokofiev and Schubert. - Michael Green




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