THERE’S always been a measure of duality in Laura Stevens’s life. This 28-year-old Cape Town-born, London-based young composer started out at the age of five with a question: cello or piano? She took both, all the way through to the SA College of Music at UCT with teachers and Anmari van der Westhuizen and François du Toit. She then added formal composition – she had been banging out original melodies on the piano from the age of eight under the tutelage of South African composers Peter Klatzow and Allan Stephenson, and later British composers Joseph Horovitz and Alison Kay at the Royal College of Music in London.
Then there were two more options: concert or screen/ media composition. Stevens being Stevens, she is working on both. And loving it. It’s her composition Long Walk that is having its world premiere by the Cape Town Philharmonic on June 4 under the baton on Japanese maestro Yasuo Shinozaki at the Cape Town City Hall at 8pm.
Long Walk, homage naturally to Madiba, is programmatic, erring on the tonal side of harmony, and very accessible, but not without innovation and colourful instrument combinations, she says.
It was a commission of the SA Music Rights Association targeting a few young South Africa composers (she was partnered with Allan Stephenson as her mentor), and support from SAMRO has made this performance possible. It starts with the death of Madiba, a dirge of sorts, and then goes back to his idealistic youth, continuing through several turbulent developments and on to a final heralding of his departure and status as political legend. It’s quite filmic in conception, she says, and a real challenge to do all this in five minutes! While the piece is firmly rooted in the Western art music tradition, there are hints of traditional African influence breaking through the thematic material and instrumentation.
There are challenges to both kinds of composition. The South African market is very small, dominated by a small group of prolific and successful older composers, she says, which is why she is based in London, where opportunities for new-comers are never thin on the ground. She obtained her Master’s Degree at the Royal College of Music where she also has great contacts resulting in many commissions.
Through the college she collaborated with budding young film-makers and animators, most notably as composer for a stop-motion animation film commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Her latest commission, somewhat closer to the world of concert music, is a one-act ballet inspired by post-war America, written for the English National Ballet which premieres at Sadler’s Wells this June. With few rehearsals, and because the choreography is also new the whole situation has been sort of chicken-and-egg, with the choreogapher setting rough steps to some of Laura’s existing compositions then having her in rehearsals to observe and then write new but similar music to suit the steps.
“It’s an organic and collaborative process,” she says, and she will conduct the ensemble for the performances, which are set to enjoy extensive press coverage.The challenge in film music is to be economical and accessible because there are even fewer rehearsals – none at all! Film is global, she says, and her work is in several British and American film production music libraries so independent directors from as far as Bollywood directors can ask her to compose. She was also asked to write the music for a promotional film for cancer awareness in India.
Her family background is not rooted in the professional world of music. Her doctor father and her doctor-turned-photographer mother instilled a love for the arts in their four children, but only her sister, Victoria Stevens, a soprano studying opera at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, and Stevens made it their careers. Her other two siblings, who studied flute, piano and percussion among them, are now in the medical profession.
Stevens has had a number of works performed at prominent venues, one of them being an unconventional work for soprano and marimba, written for Magdalena Minnaar and Magda de Vries, which premiered at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. She also teaches piano privately (alongside regular ad hoc orchestral and session work) and has performed at the acclaimed St Martin in the Fields (Trafalgar Square), where she accompanied for the premiere of her art song cycle for baritone and piano.
Something that is in the pipeline is a series of art songs for Victoria, one based on South African texts, which she will also accompany in performance- something she doesn’t always like to do. “I like hearing someone else interpret my work. “For me, the true measure of the success of a piece is hearing what other musicians do with it.”
Awagadin Pratt is the soloist in the First Beethoven Piano Concerto, with the main work the Fourth Symphony by Tchaikovsky.
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