In 2009 the initiators of the wildly successful Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees (KKNK) in Oudtshoorn created a sister festival to cater for the locals’ need of quality classical music. Today, the Klein Karoo Klassique attracts performers from around the world and a previously untapped winter audience of passionate aficionados to the Southern Cape.

WORDS Tisha Steyn PHOTOGRAPHS Hans van der Veen and supplied

Driven by attorney and businessman Nic Barrow and a committee of respected local music, art and hospitality roleplayers, the Klein Karoo Klassique is held in August each year to celebrate classical music, food, art and wine.

“We wanted to bring classical music to the rural Klein Karoo,” says Nic, who sensed many others in the community shared his love of classical music. Among them was music teacher Danie Bester, whom Nic called in 2008 to ask his opinion on revitalising the then almost non-functioning Oudtshoorn Music Society. “Klassique was the natural outcome of the re-established society and took the activities of the latter a step further by extending the classical offering to non-members, the rest of the country and even the international community,” says Danie.

The festival’s founding meeting, where Nic was elected chairperson, was held at the Queen’s Hotel and was very well attended. Danie suggested the name Klein Karoo Klassique and the date for the first festival was set for 14 to 16 August 2009. The committee comprised of several other Music Society members and ArtKaroo gallery owner Janet Dixon.

“Many of us felt the KKNK was not representative enough of the true Klein Karoo culture,” says Janet. “We felt we needed to present something more authentically Karoo to the public, such as our unique local cuisine and excellent local wines.”

Klassique was also an opportunity to attract additional tourism to the town in the relatively quiet winter months.

“Musically, Klassique was aimed at complementing the cultural roots of the KKNK by focusing on classical music specifically, with a strong emphasis on supporting South African performing artists – several of them at a relatively young stage in their careers, such as local prodigy Sulayman Human,” says Brett Pyper, the then CEO of the KKNK.

The first programme included all genres of classical music, and of note was the inclusion of Nina Schumann and her husband Luis Magalhães, who played compositions for two pianos by Brahms, Lutoslawski, Arensky and Copland. The couple’s link to the festival would have far-reaching benefits in later years.

Also included in the first programme was the Cape Town Symphony Orchestra, now the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra, with conductor Theodore Kuchar and soloists Pretty Yende and Given Nkosi, at the Oudtshoorn Civic Centre. The performance was so much sweeter in light of the orchestra’s previous appearance at the centre in 1983. An apartheid era local municipal bylaw prohibited multiracial audiences from attending a performance in the civic, while the orchestra’s policy determined they could not perform for segregated audiences. “A High Court order forced the municipality to comply in 1983, and so the less controversial 2009 opener was extra special,” says Nic.

What Nic doesn’t say is that he carried the costs of that first performance – not only their transport but also their accommodation in the Queen’s Hotel, according to Danie. “If it wasn’t for Nic’s financial input, the Klassique would never have happened. He also sourced the first handful of sponsors.”

The first Klassique was a huge success. “The Klassique was widely publicised and enthusiasts of classical music from as far afield as Kimberley, Uitenhage and Colesberg attended,” recalls Nic. “Apart from introducing world-class artists performing classical music to the Klein Karoo, the region’s unique natural environment, food, wine and art were also given an international stage.”

During the first two years the programme included mostly solo recitals, chamber music concerts, a symphonic programme and choirs. The line-up gradually expanded to include performances covering the breadth of music described as classical, such as classical pop, classical jazz, light classical songs from musicals and choirs, including the Cape Town Youth Choir, the St George’s Choir and community choirs.

The reaction of those who have since attended Klassique has been overwhelming: “People want to know where we find all these amazing classical musicians,” says Danie. “We are proud of the excellent artists we manage to attract. People who attend regularly often book their shows and accommodation a year in advance.”

Klassique became an additional project of the KKNK festival office from its second year.

Launching careers

Sulayman Human, who started playing the piano at the age of twelve, owes his success largely to Klassique.

“Musician and singer Coenie de Villiers was the first to notice the local schoolboy’s potential at a recital during the KKNK and brought his talent to Nic’s attention,” recalls Danie. Since then Nic and the Klassique team went out of their way to develop his gift.

At the time Sulayman was attending Dysselsdorp Secondary School and taking music lessons from various teachers. When he was about 15 and in Grade 10, renowned classical pianist and educator John Theodore facilitated Sulayman’s move to Oudtshoorn High School where he could take music as a school subject, and started preparing him for external music examinations. Nic gave him a Dietmann piano, which Danie delivered to the residence where Sulayman’s mother was a domestic worker.

Sulayman subsequently became a student of Nina Schumann and Luis Magalhães and his progress culminated in a superb recital at Klassique in 2013.

“It was a pivotal moment when Sulayman performed a brilliant solo recital on the Yamaha G5 grand piano on stage at the Neelsie that day,” recalls Danie. “Coenie was overcome by emotion as the schoolboy, who after only seven years, played such incredible music.”

What to expect

The festival starts with an opening concert, which since 2013 included the winners of the previous year’s ATKV Muziqanto competition, and whose final round coincides with the performance of the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra gala concert on the Saturday night.

This gala concert has been known as the Mimi Coertze Gala Concert since 2012. The legendary opera singer agreed to be the patron of the festival in 2013.

Musicians include local talent such as pianists Sulayman and John, and soprano Friedel Mitas, as well as South African-born musicians from elsewhere in the country and those who have won international acclaim and live and work overseas.

Janet says the Klassique is arguably a much more pleasant festival than the KKNK “because it draws a completely different set of people who are really interested in music, art, the unique Klein Karoo cuisine and our excellent wines”.

“To my mind, Klassique has notably brought younger artists from a range of backgrounds to Oudtshoorn, broadening understandings of who is active in the classical musical world, and for whom this music is significant,” says Brett. “Some programmes have notably extended the conventional understanding of the classical repertoire as well. As always, this work continues to be extended and remains a work in progress.”

The festival guides are printed in Afrikaans and English, and productions are introduced in both languages to allow for the festival’s diverse following.

The Klein Karoo Klassique takes place from 12 to 14 August this year (2016). Programme and booking information at Early booking of performances, accommodation and meals are highly recommended.