I have an odd relationship with Graham Newcater. I feel as if I have shared profound conversations with him over the past 8 years, but the truth is that we have never met. Our communication has been minimal: we have shared one phone call and a few years ago I was thrilled to receive two scores and a handwritten note from him. My connection to Mr Newcater is through his music, specifically, his Toccata for Piano, which was commissioned by the UNISA Music Foundation as one of two prescribed works for the UNISA International Piano Competition in 2012. The Toccata was the more technically challenging option of the two prescribed works, which was an important consideration given the time limitations for learning and memorising the music. However, the work added a dramatic component and explosive conclusion to my competition round. My program progressed from the expected fugal chromaticism of J.S. Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue through the fixed chordal soundscapes of Scriabin and his mystic chord, to the exciting atonality of Newcater’s Toccata, which is a work that is entirely secure in its dissonance. I thus chose the Toccata over the other prescribed work for its harmonic and virtuosic effect, completely unaware of the lasting influence it would have on myself and my musicianship.
Through the process of learning the Toccata, Mr Newcater introduced me to sounds and processes that were unfamiliar to me at the time. Ahead of receiving the score, I researched his work and realised that I would likely be engaging with a dodecaphonic vocabulary. This was a new and frightening experience and I immersed myself in sounds produced by twelve-tone technique in preparation for working with the score. I was also presented with another frightening predicament I had not faced before: I had to learn a work without the reference of other interpretations. Usually, I would listen to recordings during the learning process to get a sense of how others have interacted with the music and to understand what I might be able to add through my own interpretation. Of course, Toccata was a brand-new work.
This was the first time I had engaged with a newly commissioned work and I found it both daunting and exciting. On the one hand, it felt as if I was stumbling in the dark. On the other, I had the incredible opportunity to be involved in creating something original.
I knew that my contribution and interpretation could inform the work of my colleagues in the future. The excitement of being part of something new gave me the stamina to take on the challenging texture of the Toccata. It has also inspired me, all these years later, to continue learning new music and to commission works from composers, which has led to deeply meaningful musical experiences.
The above clip is from the 2018 SAMRO Overseas Scholarship Competition where I was awarded first prize, 56 years after Graham Newcater was awarded first prize at the inaugural installment of the same competition. I have performed the Toccata numerous times since 2012. I’ve played it in concert halls and retirement villages, for recitals and competitions, in Cleveland, New York, Calgary, Pretoria, and Stellenbosch. This work has travelled with me and become a part of me, as music so often does. I am grateful to Mr Newcater for journeying with me and for introducing me to the profoundly gratifying process of learning new music.