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‘Music was, in many ways, a place of refuge’ | A Q&A with violinist Samson Diamond

The Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra (JPO)’s new Winter Season takes place at the Linder Auditorium this 9 – 30 June. Forming a part of the stellar programme, is violinist Samson Diamond.

Samson Diamond violinist interview Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra winter season

Appointed leader of the award-winning Odeion String Quartet since 2013, and resident at the University of the Free State, Diamond is also a lecturer at the Odeion School of Music and concertmaster of the Free State Symphony Orchestra (FSSO). Notably, Diamond has enjoyed an association with the London based, Chineke! Orchestra since its inception in 2015.

Ahead of the JPO Winter Season, where Diamond will be performing alongside Jeanne-Louise Moolman on viola, and under the baton of Daniel Boico, Creative Feel’s Editor in Chief Lore Watterson spoke with the musician about being back at the Linder, Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante and an ‘average day’ in the life of Samson Diamond.

You will be performing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante for violin and viola in E-flat major together with Jeanne-Louise Moolman. Please tell us a bit more about the performance and your personal feelings about the music.

Samson Diamond violinist interview Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra winter season

I am thrilled for this incredible opportunity for many reasons. Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante is extraordinarily beautiful. The sonorous blend between violin and viola is unmatched and it is all just serendipitous performing this work with my wonderful quartet colleague, Jeanne-Louise Moolman, along with my amazing colleagues from the JPO. It’s also been ages playing at the Linder Auditorium with the JPO where I used to be principal second violinist in the orchestra. The Sinfonia Concertante, as the title suggests is both symphonic in character with a creative combination of violin and viola as concerto soloists. However, the actual orchestration is small, fitting for a chamber orchestra with just the added two horns and two oboes. Mozart’s genius brings a symphonic flair with an equally shared spotlight on the violin and viola without any bias, and perhaps that is why so many viola players love this piece. Mozart did have a closer affinity with the viola, which he preferred to play in chamber music. The Andante second movement is, for me, one of the most deeply moving pieces of music. 

Since 2013 you are the appointed leader of the award-winning Odeion String Quartet and resident at the University of the Free State. You are also a lecturer at the Odeion School of Music and the concertmaster of the Free State Symphony Orchestra (FSSO). What does a ‘normal’ day of work look like for you?

Samson Diamond violinist interview Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra winter season

Well, how do we define ‘normal’ these days? Typically, with the three roles you mentioned, I spend a lot of time playing the violin, with daily quartet rehearsals, teaching, practice, general admin, and research. Luckily, not all at the same time. It is a privilege being afforded the platform to play chamber music, so before the rehearsals, I try to fit in some practice if not just warm up, then the practice is done in the afternoons, when I juggle between meetings and practical teaching, later in the evenings, and on occasion, we rehearse with the FSSO, or I just work on my PhD study. The studying has increasingly taken priority recently when there were less performance engagements.

How did you manage during these difficult times of COVID? Did you miss the actual performances as a musician? Are there any virtual concerts you managed to record?

Samson Diamond violinist interview Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra winter season

The peak of the COVID-19 pandemic was incredibly difficult for everyone, and more especially for performing artists. I am fortunate to have a full-time position, where it means that I did not have to rely on performances for income. However, like everyone, I was sadly affected by the cancellations of live performances, including international concert tours. At first, it meant to me that I could concentrate on my studies a bit more, which was great. Also, it meant that my wife and I could spend more time with the kids, but that saturated over time with the added anxiety of isolation and movement restrictions. I recorded several virtual concerts playing duets, string quartets, and appearing as soloist with the orchestra. Although it could never replace live music making with an audience, it was a necessary intervention of engaging remotely with people during a period of overwhelming hardship. The music was therefore, in many ways, a place of refuge during the pandemic.

Tell us more about the London-based, Chineke! Orchestra that you appeared as leader for their performances and recordings in London. You joined the Chineke! Orchestra as well for their tour in Europe as concertmaster. What attracted you to this black and ethnically diverse orchestra and why is it important to you?

Samson Diamond violinist interview Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra winter season

In April 2022, I was delighted to be invited back to lead the Chineke! Orchestra for a performance at the Royal Festival Hall, where they are now one of the associated resident orchestras. I was invited to join Chineke! Orchestra as principal second violinist when it was founded in 2015 by Chi-chi Nwanoku OBE. From what I understand, Chineke! would not be relevant if we lived in a world without racial discrimination, prejudice and inequality. What Chineke! Foundation aims to do is to highlight the lack of diversity in Classical music, not only on stage, and what you hear, but in the audiences as well. In so doing, it has created new avenues of representation. For a culturally diverse country, I think the South African music fraternity needs to reflect on the slow pace of inclusive engagement. We can share more in common rather than embracing or highlighting inherent differences.  

You play a fine 1802 S. Wagner violin and have received a number of awards over the years. You have also played in some of the most prestigious concert houses. What dream of yours is still outstanding?

Well, I am hoping to complete my doctoral studies by 2023. There are already exciting invitations for concert engagements in 2024 and that will require undivided focus in my playing and practice.  

Find the full Winter Season programme here.

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