Erik Dippenaar clearly remembers the moment that, as a 17-year-old, he was inspired to pursue a career in ‘early music’ – a genre that includes music from the medieval to the early romantic periods in Europe.
“It was a compilation CD of some of JS Bach’s works – the St Matthew Passion, St John Passion and Mass in B Minor – performed by the English Baroque Soloists under the baton of John Eliot Gardiner.
“It was the first time I had heard baroque music played on the original instruments and I thought it was the most wonderful thing I had ever heard.”
That initial inspiration led Erik – via a BMus at Stellenbosch University (SU) and a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London – to helm the only period orchestra in South Africa and an annual festival that has put the country on the international early-music map.
However, Erik’s success in forging a livelihood as a harpsichordist, organist and artistic director may be attributed as much to his endeavour as that first CD.
As he himself admits: “I never imagined I would be able to actually have a career as a baroque musician in South Africa.”
That he has done so may be attributed to his leading role in establishing early music as an artistic form in its own right in South Africa.
When he was appointed as the artistic director of the Camerata Tinta Barocca after his return from London in 2015, the ensemble was, he says, still playing modern instruments.
This ran contrary to Erik’s fundamental commitment to playing baroque music on the actual instruments for which it was written.
“I had to put my foot down,” he says.
At the same time, he acknowledges the challenges that the musicians under his direction then had to face.
“Learning to play a period-equivalent instrument is like learning to play a new instrument. You have to invest time, as well as money to purchase the new instrument.
“But this is our view of how baroque should be played and we stick to our vision of the style.”
As artistic director at the ensemble, Erik seeks to create the kind of learning environment that he himself experienced during his six years as a performer in London.
“One of the most fantastic things was the colleagues that I got to work with there,” he says. “I went to work and learnt something new every day.”
Having assumed the mantle of leadership at the ensemble, Erik recognises that he has moved to “the other side”.
“I have to inspire others now, which means I have to inspire myself to be inspirational.”
With the goal of establishing an international-standard baroque orchestra, Erik is continuously seeking to raise the bar.
“There is a lot of talent here that can be nurtured by creating a good work ethic and an inspirational working environment. But since it’s a relatively small scene, there can be a lack of competition.
So, a great deal of the effort goes into guidance that can create the necessary momentum.”
Erik has also sought to develop the early-music scene through the annual Cape Town Baroque Festival which has been held since 2017. Conceived as a ‘drunken idea’, the event was almost sold out last year.
Erik says that a particular focus of the festival has been to encourage the many South Africans who are working in early and historical music abroad to bring back their skills. “It provides a homecoming platform,” he says.
Erik’s fascination with early music also extends into history itself. He is currently writing a PhD on the role of keyboard instruments in colonialism – in particular, their totemic function in representing ‘Western culture’ for settlers who often never even laid hands on the keys despite carting the unwieldy instruments to their homesteads.
Erik himself grew up on a farm in the heart of the countryside, but there the similarity ends – in great part due to SU.
“It opened so much for me. I would say it was like an intermediate phase – a slow exposure into the real world to come.”
- By Mark Paterson -