I first met “Eric” (as we all called him) in 1980, when I started taking lessons with him and playing in his Stellenbosch String Orchestra (for 10 unforgettable years). I was one of the participants when he established the USSO in 1981, and also saw him in action as brilliant Principal Viola in the then CAPAB orchestra during the years that I played there.
Eric was the best possible teacher that I could have had after my school years with Jack de Wet. From Jack de Wet, I received a wonderful technical grounding. Eric taught me about musicality, phrasing, playing true to the style of a work. I did 3 Licentiates and studied under him for 8 years – I simply couldn’t stop. Not one moment of my lessons was empty.
When I had to follow him up as conductor of the USSO after his serious accident, I was filled with trepidation at the thought that I now had to carry his mantle: the number and variety of works that he had done with over the years with the USSO is truly staggering. No undertaking was too daunting for him: I, for one, would never do the Gounod Mass with my choir, because the orchestra requires 6 (!) harps. Eric did the Gounod – with 6 harps on stage.
It is solely thanks to him that I have a thorough knowledge of works for string orchestra. There is almost no work for string orchestra, from the Baroque to the end of the 20th century, that he did not do with us, and sometimes also performed overseas. He is also the one that opened up countless opportunities for me to play in various groups and orchestras in Cape Town and elsewhere.
Occasionally, he could drive one round the bend when he was “on a mission” – but I always understood it as the product of his boundless enthusiasm and passion. –His key holder had the inscription “Certified crazy person”, which I always thought was very funny and very apt. He was crazy and unstoppable when he had a new project at hand. At the annual National Orchestra Course, his orchestra used to be the most popular one, both for the appealing works that he always selected, but also for the person that he was with the young people.
He was an exceptionally kind, generous, warm-hearted and spontaneous person. He was genuine and had a kind heart. In my mind’s eye I see him before me, smiling and gesturing, enthusiastically telling me about his newest project. This is how I shall remember him.
Louis van der Watt