Classical genius

Up-and-coming young pianist Ben Schoeman sits at the piano and tilts his head sideways — animated. He switches from an intense stare to his trademark sideways bop and says about the piece he is playing: ‘Ah, it’s so difficult.” His words are forceful, but a smile plays on his lips.

Schoeman has his back to an entrance that leads to the lounge of his home in Brooklyn, Pretoria. His grand piano faces a spacious area filled with homely couches and a large widow overlooking a tree-lined garden.

On a coffee table are newspaper clippings and neatly stacked letters. Among them is one Schoeman is particularly proud of — a letter from Arts and Culture Minister Pallo Jordan congratulating the 24-year-old.

On another table across the room, rolled up certificates still in their protective cardboard are neatly placed in a line, the pride of Schoeman’s educationist mother.

He plays a piece that is discernable, even to an ear that is not classically inclined, because it contains a hint of jazz. It is a composition by prolific South African pianist Surendran Reddy and was composed for the 11th Vodacom Unisa International Piano Competition.

The composition, for which Schoeman bagged a special prize for his rendition, was noted for its complexity and punishing length. It is a piece characteristic of the brand of music that the composer has aptly coined ‘clazz”.

Titled Toccata for John Roos, the music is a fitting tribute to a man Schoeman considers the pride of the South African classical music industry.

Roos, who was on the adjudication panel for the piano competition, is considered the most prominent South African in the international classical music scene and can be found on the adjudication panels of most major international piano competitions.

Music has been a part of Schoeman’s life since he could utter his first words. He started playing at the tender age of four, initially taking up the violin before gravitating towards the piano when he was just six.

His love of music was fuelled by his parents who exposed him and his older sister, Adele, to an array of music and languages. Schoeman’s father, Marinus, always felt that it was important for his children to be ‘articulate”.

Marinus is a philosophy professor at Pretoria University, a sprint away from the family’s Roper Street home. He has always loved classical music and now relishes the prospect of having his son home before an ‘extended tour” of South Africa later this year.

The tour will form part of the reward for Schoeman who became the first South African pianist to scoop the illustrious grand prize and gold medal in the Vodacom Unisa competition.

Previously Schoeman won every major piano competition in South Africa, including the PJ Lemmer and the Southern African Music Rights Organisation overseas scholarships.

At the climax of the competition Joseph Stanford — his teacher and mentor from the time he was 14 — stepped into the hall for the first time to watch Schoeman play his final concerto that would clinch the coveted prize.

On other nights of the competition Stanford, an elderly, vivacious man, sat on the steps outside the University of South Africa’s ZK Matthews Hall. ‘I was very nervous,” says Stanford.

He says he had a feeling after hearing Schoeman play the Reddy composition that he would win the competition. ‘But he has no airs or graces,” Stanford says of his student.

Schoeman is working on his master of music degree under the tutelage of Stanford, having completed his bachelor of music with distinction in 2005.

But, while busy with his masters, he has been living in Italy for two years. Schoeman is based in the town of Imola where he is studying at the local piano academy under a triumvirate of teachers he jokingly refers to as ‘dragons” because of their strong belief in discipline. Predictably, he can now express himself confidently in the language of his temporarily adopted country.

Schoeman, however, remains committed to South Africa and was proud to win ‘the premier cultural event in South Africa” in front of a home audience. He says the atmosphere in the ZK Matthews Hall that night was amazing.

It suddenly dawned on Schoeman that he could be the winner of the competition when he and the runner-up Australian Alexey Yemtsov were the only competitors left.

‘I was stunned,” says Schoeman on hearing Yemtsov’s name announced ahead of his. ‘Everybody jumped up, it was like a rugby match.”

The Unisa concert series takes place at the Unisa Conference Hall until June 22 and includes performers from France, Japan, the Netherlands, the United States, Canada and Russia. Tel: 012 429 3336 or 082 770 6138 for details

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