From David Maughan Brown in York: Reviving Music

July 18th

Wedding anniversaries tend, in my experience, to evoke memories and lend themselves to reflection and reminiscence even more than birthdays do.  Yesterday was one such, and after a socially distanced glass of champagne in my son’s garden in York, with families in Cape Town and Sheffield joining us electronically, we pushed the boat out via our first take-away meal since the start of lockdown.  Partisan, one of the best restaurants in York – and it is an exceptionally competitive field – started producing two-course take-away meals under lockdown that proved so popular that they have continued to do so for those of us neither brave nor carefree enough to regard lockdown as having ended.  They assure prospective customers that they offer ‘generous portions’, which is a serious understatement – each of the individual servings of potatoes, for example, featured eight potatoes (generous even for Yorkshire) – so we have another excellent dinner to look forward to tonight.

By way of a floorshow while we ate our dinner we accessed Christopher Duigan’s streamed Music Revival concert, which yesterday consisted mainly of his own, exceptionally evocative, short compositions.   Christopher is an improbably brilliant pianist who lives with his partner in Pietermaritzburg.   ‘Improbably’ only to the extent that one would expect to find a pianist of his quality living in Barcelona or London, where he does play from time to time, or, if he was going to remain in South Africa, in the cultural centres of Cape Town or Johannesburg/Pretoria, where in normal times he also goes to play quite frequently.  Christopher has a phenomenal repertoire of classical pieces, which enables him to put together two hour-long concerts every week that he streams via You Tube on Thursday and Saturday evenings, playing much of the time from memory.  It was just our good luck that the concert scheduled for Thursday had been put off until yesterday as a result of a threatened power outage, one of the very many that South Africans have to contend with these days.  The concert evoked layer upon layer of nostalgia, particularly when he was kind enough to dedicate the beautiful last piece he played, titled ‘Himeville’, to us for our anniversary.

I had the pleasure of being peripherally involved as a trustee when Christopher set Music Revival up in Pietermaritzburg in 1997.  We attended many of his concerts at his home, from where he streams his evening concerts now, and at a venue a few miles away in a house in Hilton designed around a room big enough to accommodate 40-50 strong audiences.   One of the spin-offs from those concerts was the Wedgewood brand of nougat, now sold all over South Africa, that Jilly Walters, the hostess, originally made as an interval snack.  We knew most of those in the audience at the concerts, as one would after living in the same relatively small city for much the better part of thirty years.  Even after almost twenty years in York, the social isolation that the pandemic has necessitated has served only to underline the comparative isolation one is inviting if one opts to change continents after one’s children, who are the catalyst for so many of one’s social relationships, have left home.

The nostalgia evoked by watching Christopher playing ‘Himeville’ against a backdrop of orchids in his familiar home was not just for the rolling green hills of the KwaZulu-Natal midlands, described so lyrically in Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country, and the foothills of the Drakensberg where the little town of Himeville is to be found, but also for the friendships and sense of community and common purpose that lasted beyond the ending of apartheid and into the ‘transformation’ years that followed.   The struggle against apartheid generated a sense of common purpose and a strong bond between those who opposed that vicious and ultimately self-defeating system.  I think many of us miss that sense of common purpose. I certainly do.   So tuning in to Christopher’s concerts on Wednesdays or Thursdays (depending on the schedule of power-outages) and Saturdays is more than just a way to enjoy brilliant piano playing, and Christopher’s informal and informative commentary, it is also a way of regaining, at least in part, a sense of being part of a community with a shared history.