The language of music

Roelof at the piano in the family home in Stellenbosch.

Stellenbosch denizen and Paul Roos Old Boy Roelof Temmingh graduated from the Royal College of Music in London recently. He was first in his class and also received the Tagore Gold medal which is awarded to the top student, similar to being awarded the Chancellor’s medal in SA. MARGUERITE VAN WYK caught up with him recently during his final year of studies.

Scion of a notable family, Roelof Temmingh has music in his blood. His late father was the composer Roelof Temmingh, while his mother Zorada is a much-lauded organist and improvisational pianist who makes up one-half of the duo Blondes. Together with her ‘other half’, fellow pianist Elna van der Merwe, she presents hit shows at arts festivals and has produced a number of CDs. 

Roelof is rosy-cheeked and bright-eyed when we meet during his recent annual visit home from London. Calm and collected, he chats away about opera stars such as Anna Netrebko and the Argentinean pianist Martha Argerich and seeing the West End play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (he’s a huge Harry Potter fan); all part and parcel of his life in England’s capital. As he tucks into a scone with jam and cream, he adds that also enjoys the music of Queen, Coldplay and Norah Jones.

After winning five of six categories in the 2014 Hennie Joubert National Piano Competition at the Stellenbosch Conservatoire and being declared the overall winner, this talented youngster decided to further his career in London. “I wanted to compete with the best in the world,” he says. “I like competition. Believe me, I’m still learning every day.”

Between attending his daily classes, practising for approximately five hours a day and rehearsing for two to three hours a night with the Oriole Quartet, he has precious little time left over. The few hours he does have are taken up by part-time jobs. Thanks to a Jenny Marsh Chapman Memorial Scholarship, his study fees are partly covered, but he teaches piano and Latin after hours to
support himself. “And I usher at concerts,” he adds. It was while doing this that he met Ian McKellen – Gandalf of Lord of the Rings fame – who autographed his programme.

“I hardly ever get homesick because I’m very busy and love
exploring my new surroundings,” says Roelof. But he does miss his mom’s bobotie and spaghetti bolognaise. “She has compiled a mini-cookbook for me with all my favourite recipes. That helps when I have to cook for myself in our self-catering student kitchen.” And he keeps in regular contact with his loved ones via FaceTime, WhatsApp and Skype. 

With the other members of the Oriole Quartet, Emma Purslow (vio­lin), Florian Belbeoch (cello) and Poppy Beddoe (clarinet).

Surrounded by music in his family home, he knew at the age of three he wanted to study the violin. “I started playing the piano when I was eight,” he adds. His mother was his first piano teacher. “She taught me that no matter how talented you are, you have to be well prepared and put in lots of work. Otherwise your performance will never be up to standard.” 

Roelof and his twin Zorada, a law student at the University of Stellenbosch, seldom saw their father after their parents divorced when they were seven. “I greatly respect his compositions and in my second year at the Royal College of Music it was a real highlight for me to play his First Piano Concert in A Minor in the finals of the concerto competition. His music is different, but so exciting to play. And when you understand it, it has a wonderful structure. His orchestration is transparent, almost like Mozart’s,” he enthuses.

As for his own passions, Sergei Prokofiev is a favourite “because the way you play his compositions, you almost abuse the piano – it’s so much fun!” Roelof even met Prokofiev’s grandson at a concert in honour of the great Russian composer. The majestic, soulful sounds of Mahler also grip his heart. “After I heard Mahler’s Second Symphony at the Royal Albert Hall, I thought, how can anyone not believe in God when they listen to this music?”

Roelof regards music as a unique ‘language’. “Sometimes a chord reminds me of someone’s expression or of an event. It is real. I would love to do a PhD on the language of music.”

His sister doesn’t share his love for classical music. “But she knows all the pop songs. About 10 years ago we performed a jazz duet that I composed – ‘Let’s Boogie’ – at an eisteddfod.” 

Although reserved by nature, Roelof loves the interaction with the other members of the Oriole Quartet, who play clarinet, violin and cello. “We have lots of fun with the musical process. Each one of us is a strong individual, quirky and opinionated, but my colleagues are brilliant musicians and that makes for good discussions and rehearsals. We play challenging works, mainly contemporary, which is well suited to an ensemble like ours.” Roelof is the leader and writes the arrangements. He is also in charge of the choice of music and likes making decisions for the sake of ‘good music’. “I love conducting as well and would like to do it full-time in future.”

One of the perks of a musical career is that it involves extensive travel. “Our quartet has seen a lot of the world. We have performed in Spain and at the Austrian embassy and we were selected to play at the Royal College of Music’s annual president’s visit for Prince Charles in 2017.” Roelof recently went on a six-week international trip in celebration of Nelson Mandela’s 100-year anniversary, playing with the MIAGI Youth Orchestra of the South African Department of Arts and Culture. The orchestra performed Bernstein’s Prelude Fugue and Riffs at venues such as the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and the Elbphilharmonie, a brand-new concert hall in Hamburg, Germany. In South Africa, Roelof has entertained at major arts festivals such as Woordfees and the Chamber Music Festival in Stellenbosch, the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees in Oudtshoorn and Aardklop in Potchefstroom. 

Last year Roelof performed his father’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in the Endler Hall with the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra.

A thoroughly down-to-earth guy, Roelof loves Europe and wants to further his studies in Munich, where his half-brother Stefan Temmingh, an internationally renowned recorder player, lives. “I might even go to Juilliard in New York. As long as I never stop learning.”

He has great praise for his music tutor at the Royal College of Music, Nigel Clayton. “We are taught much more than music. We have to ‘dissect’ the original score, the urtext. Our teachers give us insight into why the composer wrote the music, the history of the time it was written and the styles that influenced it. By the time we start interpreting the piece, we have a fair idea of how we want to play it. And we listen to recordings of music we have to perform, if they exist.”

But, admits Roelof, one day he would like to settle and have a family. “My mom managed to combine a flourishing career with a successful family life. I don’t think you have to give up one for the other.”

This astute youngster is driven, focused and exceptionally well mannered. At times in our conversation I pick up evidence of wisdom far beyond his 21 years. There is also a certain innocence that makes him endearing – especially when, almost shyly, he gives me a big hug to say goodbye.