Review/interview: Mesmerising marimba with Magdalena de Vries and the Cape Town Philharmonic Summer Symphony Festival – streaming online Feb 2022

What: Marimba concert with the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra – took place at Cape Town City Hall, on January 27, 2022
Conductor Bernhard Gueller
Soloist Magdalena de Vries (marimba)


Allan Stephenson Toccata Exotica (1984) for marimba and orchestra 
Rachmaninov Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27  

Note: The CPO’s concert 3, scheduled for Feb 3, in the Summer Symphony Festival, was postponed because of SONA. The fire in parliament led to City Hall being used for the State of Nation Address. The CPO’s concert 3, will place in April 2022 at Cape Town City Hall.

Streaming of CPO Summer concerts:

Concert 1 (soloist David Juritz- violin) will be streamed on February 17, 2022
Concert 2 (soloist -Magdalena de Vries- marimba) will be streamed on February 24, 2022.
Each stream stays up from the Thursday to the Monday.

Booking link for streamed concerts:
Programme of Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra Summer Symphony Festival 2022:

Magical – back at Cape Town City Hall, with the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra Summer Symphony Festival

It was magic to be back at Cape Town City Hall, on Thursday January 27, 2022, to attend the wondrous concert with The Cape Town Philharmonic, with soloist Magdalena de Vries on marimba. The concert, was part of the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra Summer Symphony Festival 2022. Magdalena de Vries wafted onto stage, barefoot, in a shimmering long dress. She paused and took her cues from conductor Bernhard Gueller and dexterously picked up mallets as she began playing Allan Stephenson Toccata Exotica (1984) for marimba and orchestra. It is as if de Vries  is in a trance-like state. She dances with the music, using her whole body to move across her marimba. Her movements are a performance in its own right. Stephenson’s piece is breathtaking.  I suppose this is what one gets when a piece is composed with an instrument in mind. It’s like writing a play with an actor in mind. I was fascinated by the beautiful instrument – three metres long -and its marimba artist. I rave about the concert as it was magnificent. The CPO is in fine form. The City Hall is looking sleek and beautiful.  It is acoustically fabulous. The toilets have been re-done- like a five star hotel. Proof of vaccine or negative Covid test is required, for entry to the concerts. There was an amazing atmosphere as we stood in line, outside, to show our vax cards. It was great to be in a queue again. The event was superbly organised. Security was in full force on the Grand Parade. Inside, there was an audience of 370 – seats spaced out with the requisite gaps between patrons. The orchestra numbers 80 and with the crew, it makes for 450 in attendance. It was the first time, since lockdown that I have sat in an indoor venue, which felt ‘full’.  It was bliss on all sides – a memorable concert – with a rapturous standing ovation for de Vries and afterwards for the CPO. The gees (good vibes, excitement -for international readers) was palpable. It was if there was a buzz of pure exhalation at being there; being alive, being present in the magnificent concert auditorium at City Hall. In lockdown, the CPO has been brilliant in streaming high quality recordings of concerts but ‘live’ is first prize. It felt ‘normal’. It felt like this was before Covid arrived and battered live performance. Yes, the orchestra members wore masks (except those who play wind instruments, for obvious reasons). Yes, the audience wore masks – strictly monitored by marshals walking in the aisles. (Good job- Shirley Gueller). But, still, it was as close as one could get to ‘normal’, under the circumstances of the global pandemic. I was fascinated by de Vries and her marimba. It is not often that we see a piece, especially composed for marimba and I asked her for insights. Scroll down for interview, in box.

Marimba concert -streaming – Thurs– Feb 24, 2022 and before that David Juritz violin- Feb 17, 2022- tomorrow

If you missed the marimba concert, the good news is that it will be streamed on February 24, 2022 (a Thursday evening) on Quicket. Buy a ticket and click in and you will be charmed and delighted by this wondrous concert with the world renowned De Vries and her marimba. The week before – Thursday February 17, 2022 – yeah – that is tomorrow- the CPO’s concert with violinist David Juritz, is also streaming on Quicket. I missed the Juritz concert and am thrilled to have the opportunity to experience the recording. Both concerts were part of the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra Summer Symphony Festival 2022. The David Juritz concert was the first in the series. The marimba concert with Magdalena de Vries was the second concert. The third concert was supposed to have been presented at City Hall on February 3, 2022 but had to be postponed and will take place in April. It was postponed because City Hall was needed to host SONA as Parliament was out of action because of the fire in the house. That meant that concert three could not take place, as scheduled. To be clear, two concerts are streaming on Quicket from the CPO Summer Symphony Festival 2022 and not three because the third concert has not taken place yet. The concerts are streamed on Thursday nights- 8pm – and then are available to watch until the Monday night after the Thursday night. That is the housekeeping out of the way. In addition to watching the David Juritz concert which also featured Zorada Temmingh (organ), I will definitely be watching the marimba concert, online. Yes, live is tops but having high quality recordings is wonderful. I hope that the CPO will continue to film its concerts, when Covid has finally left our shores. It means that people who cannot get there, or live out of Cape Town, have access to the recording. The summer season concerts were at 6pm. An announcement was made at the marimba concert, that going forward, it is envisaged that the concerts will revert to the ‘old’ time of 8pm. apparently, there have been complaints as people are back to the office and find that a 6pm start is too early. I personally would prefer an earlier start, while it is still light. Let’s split the difference and start at 7.15pm? Just saying. Anyway, back to Magdalena de Vries and her marimba. Here is the interview – in box:

Interview with TheCapeRobyn: Marimba with Magdalena de Vries

Magdalena de Vries grew up in Cape Town and studied the theoretical component of her BMus at UNISA and the practical component at Hugo Lambrechts Music Centre in Parow. She is currently [February 2022], based in La Montagne, Pretoria East but a move to Johannesburg is on the cards- in the next few months.  De Vries is a “fully trained percussionist” and plays an array of instruments but marimba is her speciality.  

Magdalena de Vries is the proud owner of three marimbas

The marimba that you played on at City Hall at the CPO concert on January 27, 2022, belongs to you? “Yes, it is my marimba. Or, I should say, one of my marimbas. I have three. But this one is the biggest – thankfully. It was also the first marimba I owned. And, interestingly, I could only afford it after I had already finished all my formal training. I won a music competition in London -although it was to promote performing Australian Music. With that prize money combined with savings from doing what I called ‘office bimbo’ jobs in the UK, I could afford it. That was back in 2002.”

A short history of marimba  

Reflections on the marimba used in concerts with orchestras? Magdalena de Vries: “The concert/western marimba stems from the African marimba. As the name indicates, the instrument originated in Africa. It was taken to South America by slaves, and the instrument enjoyed a lot of popularity. It was only in the early 1920s that the American Clair Omar Musser started ‘westernising’ the instrument by adopting the same keyboard as that of a piano. Over the course of the next several decades the instrument range was expanded to what it is today – five octaves.”  

On the road with a 200kg marimba– packed in eight bags

You are currently based in La Montagne, Pretoria East and plan to move to Joburg in the next few months. The logistics of getting a marimba to Cape Town- must be challenging?  Magdalena de Vries: “I am not a jet-setter. I am a land-cruiser. My instrument weighs around 200kgs, so the cost involved to fly it, is totally ridiculous. But regardless of the cost, the risk is simply too big. I have been on too many youth orchestra tours where instruments get trashed in the hold of the aircraft. So I pack the marimba into its eight bags, load it into my car, and enjoy a lovely road trip – sometimes even WITH aircon, if my car is kind to me. Luckily I do love driving. But this does add an additional layer of planning to any performance. I need to ensure that I am well rested before the journey, and obviously before the performance.”    

Marimba mallets

You switch mallets as you play? How do you decide which ones to use? Magdalena de Vries:  “It really depends on various things: The type of acoustic; the type of performance; what sort of character the music requires.” How many sets did you use at the CPO concert? “I only used three different sets (of four each). And those four were matched every time, meaning that all four were the same. They need not be. Sometimes the bass mallet only plays in the bass register, so then I can use a softer mallet for a warmer sound, and so on.” Do you plan before or do you wing it as you go along? “I decided in the rehearsal with the orchestra. In fact, I had chosen other mallets while I was practising on my own, but when I was joined by the orchestra, I had to adapt to keep the clarity. It would not be wise to leave this kind of thing to chance in the concert.”  

Barefoot playing marimba player

You play barefoot. Is this because you can feel the vibrations from the wooden floor? Magdalena de Vries: “No, not to feel the vibrations. The barefoot playing actually started in January 2005 when I performed my first concerto with the CPO. I had just bought myself the perfect pair of shoes in the UK, and was super excited to wear them. But back in 2005 the stage still had wooden floors, and as I warmed up, I realised that leather soles and wooden floors were not friends. I simply could not take the risk of worrying about whether I would split involuntarily during my performance. So I decided to ditch the shoes. But I have not looked back. Playing barefoot really gives me much more control over my movement, and somehow makes me feel very grounded- and then at least I never have to worry about what shoes to wear- only what colour to paint my toes.”

Trance like meditative state  

You almost seem to go into a trance as you listen for cues from the other musicians and watch conductor. It was mesmerising to watch you – as you almost fold yourself across the instrument and do a slow dance. It’s like yoga with marimba – you seemed to be in a space of your own- meditative? Magdalena de Vries: “Wow, thank you for all the kind words. I think in any performance it is really imperative that one immerses yourself in the music. Because that way I can try to communicate why I feel, to the audience. It takes a lot of concentration to be accurate, especially on an instrument this size. But I have played on this marimba since 2002, so it really is like an extension of my body. I feel like it is my voice. I think the movement is kind of inevitable, but I am cautious that I don’t ‘make a spectacle’. The music is what is, and should always be, the most important thing.”  

Bring on the marimba  

Why we don’t have more pieces composed for marimba? Magdalena de Vries: “Hmmm… now here is a topic of discussion. Of course the marimba is a ‘young’ instrument. The first concerto was only written in 1940. So yes, there are definitely not as many concerti for the marimba as for the piano, violin or cello for example. But that is only half of the story. People -orchestras, concert organisers etc- are scared and ignorant. They hear ‘marimba’ and expect a loud, almost brutal banging instrument. The CPO is really the only orchestra who has always had a vision, and guts to take risks. I cannot tell you how many times people have told me ‘oh I am sorry, but our audiences are used to piano, violin, cello.’  Or, even better, I had a lady from a small town music society tell me: ‘The thing is, our audiences are used to international standard musicians’. So the only way I can change people’s perceptions, is to keep doing what I am doing. Keep knocking on doors, keep trying to convince people that this is a magical instrument and their audiences WILL love it. And that is why I am super grateful for the CPO who have programmed me in three concerto performances since 2005. I mean, if it were up to me, I would play a different concerto every three months.”  

Hooked on marimba – “warmth, the soothing nature of the sound”

When, why and how – what brought you to marimba? Magdalena de Vries: “I started with piano when I went to primary school- Parow Central Primary. It no longer function as a primary school. It is an old age home now. We grew up with music, so it was sort of the obvious thing to do. And I really did love the piano. But then I was asked to play Orff xylophone with my primary school choir. And somehow the bug bit me. I remember going to symphony concerts in the Cape Town City Hall. We could still sit in those stalls behind the orchestra -where the brass are now sitting- and I was fascinated by the percussionists. They were always busy, running around from one thing to the next. So that’s why I wanted to play percussion. I had no idea there was a thing called the marimba. When I started, our music school did not have a marimba. I enjoyed the xylophone too. But as soon as the marimba arrived, that sound just totally hooked me: the warmth, the soothing nature of the sound was simply what I had to do.”    

Marimba is worth the schlep

It’s not the obvious instrument of choice. It is huge, difficult to transport? Magdalena de Vries: “Tell me about it! I curse my choice often when I have to arrive first to set up, or pack up after I have just played a concerto! But when I play it, I forget all the schlep”.

Bespoke marimbas by Marimba One™ for Magdalena de Vries

You are the only Marimba One™ endorsed artist on the African continent? What is Marimba One™? Magdalena de Vries: “That is the manufacturer of my marimba. There are probably around 20 or more manufacturers of marimbas globally. Marimba One is a small company based in Arcata, California. My instrument was custom made for me. So that means that it is not a mass produced thing. Great care is taken with every marimba they build. I could chose the colour of the resonators -those black pipes- the general tone of the notes, the height of the instrument. I wanted it lower, but it was not possible. And there is a choice between a wooden frame or a steel height adjustable frame. The wooden frame is just really like the cherry on top – pun intended- because it is made of cherry wood. The notes are made of Honduras rosewood. It is a very hard and resonant wood. It is, however, also on the SACE red list, so for each marimba that is built at Marimba One™, they plant 16 rosewood trees.”  

Marimba concerts for 2022 with Magdalena de Vries

Plans for 2022 for other concerts for you? Magdalena de Vries: “I am working on a few chamber music programmes with various instruments – violin, piano and flute.  I am also hoping to continue my collaboration with a very good friend and exceptional visual artist, Liza Grobler. But somehow Covid has also caused us to not plan too long in advance. Last year [2021] was quite devastating, because several things were cancelled at the last minute.  For this year, I have a bit more of a mid-term planning strategy. But I do already have plans for international commissions and performances for 2023, so watch this space.”    

✳Follow the marvellous journeys of Magdalena de Vries and her three awesome marimbas on Instagram: @magdalena_devries_marimba

After the concert: Renowned marimba artist, Magdalena de Vries, was soloist on January 27 2022, with the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra, Cape Town City Hall. This pic taken after the concert. Pic: © TheCapeRobyn/Robyn Cohen.
Temperature checks: Shirley Gueller of the CPO, taking temperature checks at door, January 27, 2022. Patrons must show proof of vaccine or negative PCR test and wear masks at all times, in venue. Pic: © TheCapeRobyn/Robyn Cohen.
A note on the late composer, Allan Stephenson

The CPO marimba concert with the marvellous Magdalena de Vries on January 27, 2022, at Cape Town City Hall, was a joyous tribute to composer, Allan Stephenson who passed away recently in Cape Town (August 2021). He was 71. He was born in England in 1948 and started playing piano when he was seven and cello at the age of 13. A year after graduating from the Royal Manchester College of Music, in 1972. he moved to Cape Town and became sub-principal cellist with the Cape Town Symphony Orchestra. He taught cello at the South African College Schools and lectured cello and composition at the SACM (South College of Music) at UCT. He also directed the UCT College Orchestra and worked extensively with the CPO. There are over 100 compositions to his name.

Read more – review by Dr Martin Goldstein:

✳ Featured mage by Joan Ward, supplied: Marimba artist, Magdalena de Vries, soloist on January 27, 2022, with the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra, Cape Town City Hall.