- Jeremy Joseph, from Durban to Vienna

- Jeremy Joseph, from Durban to Vienna

Vienna-based organist, harpsichordists and continue player, Jeremy Joseph, is widely regarded among European critics and audiences as one of the foremost artists of his generation. We caught up with Jeremy as he was packing his bags for a visit to Grahamstown where he will be performing during the National Arts Festival.

How did the 9 year old Jeremy land up behind an organ? Could your feet even reach the pedals?

Like most organists I started in the church. I began assisting my uncle who was organist at our local parish. I had already been taking piano lessons for a couple of years so the keyboards were not so much of a problem, the pedals were! At age 9 I could reach the pedals, unfortunately not always the right ones.

You are currently active as organist with the Vienna Court Chapel. Do you have any memorable moments of your first position as organist, at age 14, at the Cathedral in Durban? 

It was certainly memorable to have known the late Archbishop Dennis Hurley who in his retirement took on the post of Dean of the cathedral during my appointment there. He was an important figure during our country’s turbulent past and had a huge following which made the cathedral a vibrant place. I guess I did feel lucky to be organist of the church with the best acoustic and organ in town and for any 14 year old (who plays the organ) its a thrill leading a packed congregation in the singing at an Easter or Christmas Mass!

When did you first move abroad, what prompted the decision and… are you ‘lost’ to us forever?

Kobus du Plooy, my teacher in Durban, recommended further studies with the Swedish organist Hans Fagius who was lecturing at the Conservatory in Copenhagen. I travelled in 1997 to Denmark to receive private tuition from him with the intention of continuing formal studies at the conservatory. Strangely enough I ended up not studying in Denmark but during my short visit I had the opportunity to play on some of the most beautiful historical organs from the 16th and 17th centuries, which of course was something very foreign and enticing to me. There was need to return to Europe to see more. A year later I began a bachelor degree in organ performance at the Music Conservatory in Lübeck, Germany under Martin Haselböck and thereafter a post graduate degree in Stuttgart under Jürgen Essl. I wouldn’t say that I am lost to the country because my whole family lives here so I have every reason at least to visit! I will try in future to travel home more often. I have a niece who is growing up really fast and I am missing out on a lot of her unfortunately.

Vienna is the city of Mozart and Haydn, Beethoven and Brahms, Arnold Schonberg even. You are active in the Vienna Academy Orchestra and as teacher at the Vienna University of Music. Working and living there, are you conscious, all the time, of the city’s magnificent musical tradition?

In Vienna I live in a little street in which, just two doors away, Beethoven had his summer residence. It was here where he wrote the famous “Heiligenstadt Testament” as well as parts of the Pastoral Symphony. You are often reminded of the musical golden age here. Although that’s in the past the Austrians are still dedicated to promoting their culture and also very cleverly use their musical heritage as a magnet for tourism. Vienna has an incredible music life. For any music student to have the opportunity on a daily basis of hearing the legends and stars of classical music is in itself a solid musical education.

As an organist you are often at the mercy of the instrument you’re expected to play, as it varies from one venue to another. How do you tackle this challenge?

It is always a huge risk that we take giving public performances on instruments we are not familiar with. One needs enough time to adjust oneself to a new console and acoustic. What worries me though is if the programme I have chosen works on the instrument. We normally take a glance at an organ stop list and have an idea of the kind of repertoire to choose for a particular instrument, but in reality you only get to know what the instrument is really like when you are sitting at it. Most concert hall organs, which I have played, I have found to be reliable and lived up to my expectations. In German speaking countries and specifically Scandinavia church organs are often designed for solo performance as well as congregational accompaniment. Unfortunately away from this part of the world many church organs fall into the second category – good enough for playing hymns, completely inadequate for playing serious repertoire. Well, it makes life interesting anyway and keeps you on the edge.

Do you have a special relationship with any one instrument you’ve played on, or play on frequently? 

No not really, although I do like to return to play the organs of Gottfried Silbermann who was a colleague and friend of J.S Bach and whose instruments Bach had highly praised. In September I will play concerts on the Silbermanns’ in Dresden and Freiberg Cathedrals.

We often admire the complication of playing the organ - all that dexterity with hands and feet. How, for you, is the technical, and also musical experience when playing the organ, different as compared to the harpsichord and continuo? 

The dimensions of both instruments and the approach in commanding them are so very different that it’s not really possible to answer your question in this short interview. The organ in its nature is majestic and solemn and organists love using the power of their instrument. The harpsichord on the other hand is a rather intimate, soft and delicate instrument, perfectly suited for small chamber halls and not large cathedrals. There is a greater spontaneity and freedom in rhythm playing on the harpsichord than the organ. Things which have to be observed carefully on the harpsichord are touch – to be able to have at your command a touch that allows you the complete spectrum of articulation from staccato to the over exaggerated “ueber-legato”. Timing – to be able to place a note at the perfect moment as well as to be able to keep a steady pulse yet be rhythmically free. To have tense-free body posture and hands when playing, even during the most passionate of Bach pieces! Continuo is another world altogether. It is a purely improvised accompaniment. The organ, capable of sustaining harmonies gives way to a rather static continuo accompaniment whereas the harpsichord, which lacks the ability to sustain chords, requires constant motion through improvised figurations, ornamentations, broken chords etc. – hence, a lot more fun!

Do you favour any one of these instruments?

I prefer playing solo literature on the organ and continuo on the harpsichord. I consider myself more an organist than a harpsichordist.

2009 saw the release of your first commercial solo CD, Organ Music at the Viennese Court, a big event for more than one reason. Tell us about the motivation behind this recording, the instrument recorded and the magnificent musical tradition the CD represents.

The 17th century composers presented on the CD (eg. Froberger, Muffat etc.) were either organists of the Vienna Court Chapel or were very closely connected to it. Having the chance to play in the very same place was a big motivation to record this repertoire. This eventually led to the conception of the CD. Unfortunately an original organ from the 17th century has not survived in the chapel. Fortunately not far from Vienna is the beautiful baroque Klosterneuburg monastery which houses one of Europe’s most important historical organs built by Johannes Freundt in 1642. The date of the organ’s completion perfectly fits the time line of the composers recorded on the disc. For us to hear an organ that has remained in its original condition for the past 368 years gives us an authentic impression of the sound philosophy and aesthetics of organ building at that time and it is this very sound that inspired composers of the day.

Please comment on the choice of programme for your performances at the National Arts Festival.

The programme basically represents the places I have been ‘hanging around’ most of my time in recent years – Germany and Austria. I always try to include Bach in my concerts. I am curious as to how it sounds on the Grahamstown organ. As a bridge between Bach and the dark and almost “grotesque” German Romantics (Reger and Reubke), I have added some Mozart who is always a breath of fresh air.

How regularly do you visit and perform in South Africa? Are you giving any other performances during this visit?

I try to make a trip once a year. I have given two concerts a few years back at the SABC Studio in Joburg sponsored by the University of Johannesburg. After the 2 concerts in Grahamstown I will have some time to relax after these 2 strenuous concert programmes and spend time with my family.

And, bearing in mind that your visit coincides with the biggest sporting event in the world - the FIFA Soccer World Cup 2010 - being hosted in South Africa, are you a soccer fan?

No I wouldn’t say I am, but I am still glad that such an event is happening in our country and for all the jobs created, foreign investments it helped bring in, especially while the rest of the world was falling into economic crisis! I would really like to see some African countries do well in the tournament.

What's On

July 2018
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
8 9 10 11 12 13 14
15 16 17 18 19 20 21
22 23 24 25 26 27 28
29 30 31 1 2 3 4