By BRUCE DENNILL
Ingrid Fuzjko Hemming / Brooklyn Theatre, Pretoria 8
As part of a larger cultural expo staged to celebrate a century of bilateral interaction between Japan and South Africa, the Japanese Embassy hosted concert pianist Ingrid Fuzjko Hemming at the Brooklyn Theatre.
Hemming, now in her eighties, is a celebrated artist whose CV includes performances at Carnegie Hall and the like, so her presence was a treat for the relatively smaller crowd gathered in the Pretoria venue. She doesn’t interact directly with here audience much – probably a function of severe hearing impairments suffered decades ago – shuffling over to the Steinway concert grand in a well-worn kimono (changed at interval for a different one) with a stamp-sized piece of paper on which she’s scribbled her set list her only prop.
The first half of the performance is of high quality, but without high drama. Comprising mostly a selection of Chopin Etudes, it introduces the audiences to Hemming’s distinctive playing style – smooth, apparently effortless rolling of the hands as she covers huge swathes of the keyboard, fitting improbably numbers of notes into each bar and giving well-known pieces fresh new phrasing.
Work by Scarlatti and Rachmaninoff add further spice but it is the inclusion of three Liszt compositions towards the end that fully underline the skill with which Hemming plays and further bolster her reputation. Her version of La Campanella (after Paganini) is something of a calling card for the pianist, and it becomes clear why no more than a third of the way through, by which time she has, with her own stylistic twists, executed all of the impossibly virtuoso trills and 16th notes, played with at once geometric precision and undeniable passion. It’s notable, too, that a piano properly set up and tuned to allow the high, hammered D# notes to ring rather than attack the listeners’ senses helps immensely in the idea performance of the piece, and this Steinway was more than equal to the task.
The enthusiasm of the standing ovation at the end of the concert was personified by the Japanese ambassador, Mr Shigeyuki Hiroki who, no youngster himself, surprised many by leaping up onto the stage (there are no stairs) to present Hemming with a large bouquet of flowers and then repeated the feat after her short encore.
With Hemming now 85, South African audiences may not have too many more opportunities to sample her sublime talents in person again. This intimate, one-off show felt like a bit of a gift.