There are many fascinating social and personal dimensions to the story of the Buskaid Soweto String Project. Happily, for at least one anxious critic, they rest on a foundation of solid musical accomplishment. Never lost for long in a marathon love feast, Monday at Royce Hall, was a spirited concert that could be relished on purely artistic terms.
The Buskaid Soweto String Project is a string orchestra drawn from an astonishingly successful teaching program in South Africa headed by British violist Rosemary Nalden. Many of its 20 members, ages 12 to 21, began studying only in 1997. Some of them still play student-sized models, and there probably is not a professional quality instrument among them.
Yet their music making is direct and confident. Nalden has been a member of John Eliot Gardiner's English Baroque Soloists, and there is much about the Buskaid Project that suggests period instrument ensembles, most importantly the very supple phrasing. There is also a singing quality to the line, a sense of breathing energy rare among instrumentalists of any kind.
Except for conducting Albinoni's Adagio and two movements of Grieg's Holberg Suite--the rest cut to accommodate the inevitable speeches and commentary--Nalden let her students shape their own performances, led by violinists Samson Diamond and Gift Moloisane. Rhythm and balances were assured, despite the volatile enthusiasm of the playing.
Pieces by Rameau, the Pachelbel Canon, and Biber's Battaglia--its programmatic story line enacted by the musicians while playing--rounded out the classical part of the agenda. There were also arrangements of American, Irish and gypsy fiddle tunes and Joplin rags.
Actress Gillian Anderson, who was instrumental in bringing the ensemble here for its U.S. debut, introduced at length both halves of the concert. Nalden also spoke, and there was an enchanting cameo by the beginning members of Sweet Strings, a local inner-city youth music project, playing the "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" variations known to all Suzuki string students.
The large, celebrity-studded audience cheered everything, but nothing as much as the final set of Kwela, traditional township songs vibrantly arranged and performed by Buskaid members, including drum, flute and vocals. The final giddy encore, with members step dancing, was the Irish reel "Drowsy Maggie."