March 19 2014 – Cape Times Newspaper


To reach people through music is a powerful gift, says conductor Alex Fokkens, who’ll wield the baton at the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance of Carmina Burana at Kirstenbsoch on Friday at 5;30pm.I love working with people and I truly enjoy making music. I was conducting at high school already”, he says. “The excitement of recreating something written ages ago and finding the clues the composer left on the page….its like putting a puzzle together”

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Interview with classicsa 2012

Interview by Christien Coetzee Klingler

South African born conductor, Alexander Fokkens, was appointed the Artistic Director of the Free State Symphony Orchestra in Bloemfontein in 2011. He also holds the positions of Resident Conductor at the University of the Cape Town; Music Director of the Symphony Choir of Cape Town; Resident Conductor of the Cape Philharmonic Youth Orchestra; Adjunct Lecturer in Double Bass at the University of Cape Town; and General Music Director of the Swakopmund Musikwoche in Namibia. He will be conducting Trouble in Tahiti for Cape Town Opera from 15-18 August.

You will put the cast of Trouble in Tahiti through their paces at the Fugard Theatre this week. Bernstein is known for cross-genre fusions in many of his works, eg. crossing the bridges between classical music, musical and jazz. What challenges does this hold for the conductor and performers of this work?

 AF: I think that in the modern artistic world let’s say, most musicians are expected to have at least some knowledge of different styles and genres. To be more employable or adaptable, we have to have skills or at least some experience in more than one musical genre, be it gospel, jazz, opera, pop, symphonic, choral etc.

Trouble in Tahiti was written in the 1950s, and maybe was quite unique in its cross-genre writing for that time, but today it is not a new idea nor does it require skills completely foreign to the modern performers.

 What I do think is a great challenge is not so much the music or vocal performance, as it is the dramatic demands made on the performers. There is a far greater expectation these days for vocalists to be more dramatically secure. The acting has to be more “realistic”. But that is a conversation to have with the director I think…

How important do you think it is to draw new audiences by making classical music more commercial and accessible, like Bernstein seemed to have done – notably without compensating the quality of this work?

 AF: I am not sure if I would call it more commercial. I think Bernstein as a composer was just willing to embrace “modern” ideas and sounds when writing his music. He tried to make his storylines relevant to his audience at the time, just like many composers of opera over the years; Puccini, Verdi, Bizet, Mozart. To go with these attempts at “realism” he obviously also included sounds that might have been more acceptable or known to a younger audience, once again in an attempt to make his work relevant. He wrote for the audience of the time, he dealt with their issues, used their sounds and then personalized it. He just happens to have written this music a little closer to our era, than say Mozart. Although, one could argue that the basic “themes” used in literature and music have not really varied over the years

Trouble in Tahiti is described as a one-act opera, but many of the songs/arias have a distinctly non-operatic flavour in several musical styles. What difficulties did this pose the singers, who are all opera trained?

AF: The two main characters, Sam and Dinah, are written fairly operatically so the singers are well suited to these roles and the vocal writing. The trio on the other hand is a very special style of singing. It is written in the style of the 1950’s American TV “swing” singers. This was something that we in South Africa, especially the young singers in this production, never actually experienced. The lightness of the sound, the always upbeat, ‘perky’ sell the American Dream style no matter what the words are, make for a very controlled singing technique. The singers in this production are just fantastic. They really capture the style and if it posed any problems to them in the beginning, there is no evidence of that now. They sell the “American Dream” perfectly.

The production was toured to several small towns – how did audiences there react to the production?

 AF: I wasn’t involved in any of the performances or the production until now.

Correct me if I am wrong, but this is your first “full” opera production. How did you enjoy this experience?

 AF: This is in fact not my first opera production. I have conducted opera from my undergrad days at UCT, where I worked with Prof. Angelo Gobbato on the end of year productions; we did Dido and Aeneas, Rita, The Telephone, Old Maid and the Thief and oddly enough, Trouble in Tahiti. Since then I have worked on a number of opera productions, conducting as well as assisting and chorus master work. In fact in my position in America, I started the bi-annual Opera Festival at the University.

There have not been may rehearsals for this production of Trouble in Tahiti as I am working with a cast that really know the piece, having performed it a number of times already with piano accompaniment, but I must say that I am really enjoying the experience. All the people involved are excellent and committed to their performance. This creates a highly productive environment and makes rehearsals quite fantastic.

You have worked with several high profile conductors, including Omri Hadari and Gerard Korsten. Who has played a noteworthy/inspirational role in your development as a conductor?

 AF: I must admit that I have learnt something from all of my teachers. Omri Hadari was very thorough when dealing with things like stick technique and score analysis. Unfortunately he left Cape Town before I could work with him much further, but the months I spent working with him were eye opening in terms of conducting. Working with Gerard Korsten was fascinating. He taught me so much about music and rehearsal technique. I had the great fortune of playing chamber music with him as a student, he actually played for one of my Chamber Music assignments, along with Emina Lukens and Daniel Neal ( both in the CPO ), on one occasion. What an experience……..I didn’t say a word in any of the rehearsals, I just listened to them all make music and absorbed as much as I could. This was truly a great privilege

 Since then I have had a number of teachers, German Gutierrez for conducting, Adriano Aguiar and Nic Scales for Double Bass. They have all inspired me in my life and I have been lucky to have been able to work with them all.

 Another inspiration and I suppose, good fortune, were the workshops and master classes I was able to attend in the USA while I lived there. To get to work with people like JoAnn Falletta, Willian Larue Jones and Jorge Mester was like dreaming. Here were some of the greatest names in conducting in America right there, guiding young conductors.

 The two of the teachers though that have really made an enormous impact on my philosophy during these workshops were; Henry Charles Smith, he was the principal trombone of the Philadelphia under Eugene Ormandy, won a Grammy Award as a member of the orchestra’s brass quintet and then had an illustrious career conducting and Marvin Rabin, probably considered the grandfather of American youth Orchestras. They had worked with the best, achieved the most amazing things in their lives, yet had stayed humble and still, both in their 70’s when I worked with them, loved what they did with such passion.

But there are still so many other  people and events that have inspired of taught me along the way; The National Choir competition in South Africa, colleagues, friends, staff, students and of course my wife and children who just amaze me every day.

 I have also been lucky in my career though; work has come when I needed it and people have believed in me and given me opportunities to conduct. The list is quite long I must admit, but since I got back to SA; people like; Louis Heyneman of the CPO, Michael Williams at CTO, the Black Tie Ensemble, the Eastern Cape Philharmonic and now the Free State Symphony Orchestra and the Namibian Arts community. Without these people, no young conductor gets to conduct.

You are a double bass player and also lecture this instrument. Were you comfortable with the role of conductor from the start, or was it something you had to grow into?

 AF: I have wanted to become a conductor since I first conducted my high school orchestra when I was 15years old. I felt though that I should first work on my instrument and try and achieve as professional a level as a performer first, before attempting the transition to being a conductor. Because this has always been my philosophy, I first went to the USA to study as a double bass player, entering some competitions, playing some recitals and furthering my studies in Theory and Analysis. The whole time I was studying degrees in Double Bass, both here and in the USA, I was taking conducting lessons and trying to create opportunities to conduct, either with the University Orchestras or by putting my own orchestras together. 

As to whether I was comfortable from the start; well I’ve tried to make sure that I have worked with orchestras and groups with which I felt comfortable at that stage of my career. Always challenging myself to learn more and improve my conducting technique, both with the baton and rehearsal technique and then working towards the next level of ensemble as I felt I was ready.

You have done a lot of work with young musicians and have a flair for working with them. What do you think is the most important thing one can do to make a life-long classical music fan of today’s youths?

 AF: Never ever talk down to young people. Young adults are the most fascinating people. The desire that they have to do great things, to make their mark and be recognised is so powerful. If you can harness that, then wow……..Sometimes I think we make the mistake of underestimating the capabilities of young people.

 The only thing I think they lack when it comes to “classical” music is the exposure to it. I try to never present “classical” music as something better than what they listen to or say that the music they enjoy is not worth anything…..just get them listening. I have been amazed in the outreach concerts I did with the CPO, the lectures I did to non-music students in America and the work with young musicians, by which of the pieces they enjoyed and which composers intrigued them.

It’s up to us to get the music out there, not the young people to come and find us.

What inspired you to become a musician – was there a life-changing moment or experience in your life that pointed you in this direction?

AF: My parents played music in the house for us our entire lives. My father was particularly fond of Gilbert and Sullivan, I must say that he didn’t warn me not to sing the Modern Major General at break at and all boys school though…..that was I lesson I had to learn on my own……

 They encouraged us to learn instruments and my mother worked us through the years of practising. So I can’t say there was a life changing event. It was something I just really enjoyed doing and slowly became more and more involved at school and Beau Soleil and the National Youth Orchestra until I decided when I was about 15 that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

Which projects still lie ahead for you for the rest of 2012?

AF: The rest of 2012 is very exciting I must admit. I am the Artistic Director of the Free State Symphony Orchestra and we have a number of performances left for 2012, as well as planning next year.

I am really enjoying working with this orchestra and the management team in Bloemfontein, we are planning some amazing events for 2013 and are having a fantastic 2012 season.

 I am also involved in the re-establishment of the Namibian National Symphony Orchestra in Windhoek, where the official launch is scheduled for the 30th November 2012 with a performance of the Messiah by Handel. After that I take up my position as the permanent General Music Director of the Swakopmund Musikwoche in Swakopmund.

 Before then I have a number or performances with the University of Cape Town Ensembles, a performance of the Mozart Mass in C minor with the Symphony Choir of Cape Town, one of my absolute favourite works, and a performance in Port Elizabeth with the Eastern Cape Philharmonic Orchestra as highlights of the next 2 months.

So it is really busy for the next few months, but incredibly exciting.

Your wife is also a musician and you have 4 children – are they all musically inclined? Is there a Von Trapp family in the making?

 AF: My wife is the most amazing pianist and piano teacher. She has not only been the greatest event of my life, but has also been one of my greatest musical inspirations.

 My children do all play instruments, except for our son, who is only five and seems to have decided that the electric guitar is the way to go.

My oldest daughter plays the piano and is also studying singing, the second daughter the violin and the youngest daughter plays the cello. They all seem to love making music and practise hard, but as for a Von Trapp family experience, I’m not sure. I hope not, life is rather chaotic as it is.

 I must say that later this year I am going to conduct the orchestra at my daughters’ school, Rustenburg Girls Junior School, in a concerto festival and the older two have been asked by the head of music to perform as soloists, so I am very excited about this.

Publication 13 August 2012