How a small SA boy was destined for stardom

6 Jan 23 | Profiles

A remarkable SA-born pianist who has achieved international acclaim fondly remembers his early years on a South African farm, and how his mother’s love of music inspired his journey.

Acclaimed pianist Anton Nel still believes that Cape Town is the most beautiful city in the world. Born in Johannesburg, Anton’s childhood home was filled with piano music. His mother loved to play and had a beautiful voice. At 10, he started lessons when he impressed his mother by copying a piece she has just played. He mastered his lessons with ease and just two years later, when he was only 12, he won a competition and was chosen to play Beethoven’s C Major Concerto with an orchestra. He says the experience was thrilling and set the course for his life. It was the beginning of a remarkable career that saw him tour SA in his teens and take first place in all of the country’s major competitions. As a result, he soon became a well-known radio and television personality.

While many pianists can only dream of playing at Carnegie Hall, Anton’s spectacular performance there in 1987, at the Naumburg International Piano Competition, secured him first place. He was 26 years old and his remarkable feat gave rise to a multi-faceted career in SA, North and South America, Europe and Asia.

Good old Mrs Balls

While Anton became a citizen of the United States in 2003 and has lived a third of his life here, he is still proud of his SA heritage. “SA gave me so much. I had such a great start there, with a superb education and professional opportunities,” he says. As he was busy with school and his career as a teenager, he only saw the country when he went on tour.

“I’ve since enjoyed seeing SA from a tourist’s perspective. It has such a unique beauty. I still tell everyone over here that Cape Town is the most beautiful city in the world,” says Anton.

While he last visited SA six years ago, Anton, who describes himself as a foodie, enjoys recreating SA dishes for his friends.

“There are always ingredients on hand to make bobotie, especially now that World Market conveniently stocks Mrs HS Ball’s chutney,” says Anton. He also has connections in Dallas and San Antonio who supply him with boerewors and biltong. “Then, of course, there are all the puddings… In Austin and other parts of Texas, there are frequently SA gatherings centred around bazaars, potjiekos festivals and so on. Great fun! We also all stay in touch on Facebook groups,” says Anton.

His greatest fan

Anton’s mother was his biggest supporter. She was at his side as often as possible as he performed – first all over South Africa – and then later Europe. He says they often had fun playing together and remembers when they put together a programme to celebrate his grandmother’s 90th birthday.

Anton made his professional European debut in France in 1982, as a student of South African virtuoso Adolph Hallis. The same year, he graduated with the highest distinction from Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand. In 1983, he went to the United States to attend the University of Cincinnati, where he pursued his Master’s and Doctor of Musical Arts degrees under Bela Siki and Frank Weinstock. He won numerous awards from his alma mater during these three years. He also won a prize at the Leeds International Piano Competition in England (1984) and several first prizes at the Joanna Hodges International Piano Competition in Palm Desert (1986).

Highlights of his concerts include performances with the Cleveland Orchestra; and the symphonies of Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco, Seattle, Detroit and London. Anton is also an acclaimed Beethoven interpreter and has performed the concerto cycle several times, most notably on two consecutive evenings with the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra (2005). In addition, he was also chosen to give the North American premiere of Piano Concerto No 3 in E Minor by Felix Mendelssohn (1992). Two of his noteworthy world premieres of works by living composers include Virtuoso Alice by David Del Tredici, which was dedicated to and performed by Anton at his Lincoln Centre debut (1988); and Stephen Paulus’s Piano Concerto, which was also written for Anton. The acclaimed world premiere took place in New York (2003).

As a recitalist, Anton has appeared at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Metropolitan Museum and the Frick Collection in New York; the Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena; Davies Hall in San Francisco; and the Library of Congress in Washington DC. With acclaimed violinist Sarah Chang, he completed a successful tour of Japan and appeared at a special benefit concert for Live Music Now in London, hosted by King Charles III (His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales at the time).

A teacher and a performer

Besides performing, Anton also wanted to teach and joined the faculty of the University of Texas in Austin in his early 20s. He says his greatest joy as a teacher is helping students find their own voices. He was then a professor at the Eastman School of Music and the University of Michigan, where he was chairman of the piano department, before being appointed as the Priscilla Pond Flawn Regents Professor of Piano and Chamber Music at the University of Texas in Austin (2000), where he teaches an international class and heads the Division of Keyboard Studies. He has since received two Austin-American Statesman Critics Circle Awards and the University Cooperative Society/College of Fine Arts award for extra-curricular achievement.

In 2001, he was appointed Visiting ‘Extraordinary’ Professor at the University of Stellenbosch in SA and continues to teach master classes worldwide. In January 2010, he became the first holder of the new Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Endowed Chair in Piano at the University of Texas in Austin. Since 2015, he has been presenting an annual series of masterclasses in piano and chamber music at the Manhattan School of Music in New York as visiting professor, and also teaches regularly at the Glenn Gould School in Toronto.

Anton is also an acclaimed harpsichordist and fortepianist. He has recorded four solo CDs, several chamber music recordings and piano and orchestra works.

With family and friends still in SA, Anton says he is long overdue for a return visit. “Thanks to technology and social media, we have been able to stay in touch.”

H-2A program in agricultural sector high on the agenda

H-2A program in agricultural sector high on the agenda

A delegation of SA Chamber USA met with the US Ambassador to South Africa, Dr Rueben E. Brigety II, at the US Embassy in Pretoria. The meeting focused on a wide range of commerce topics, with a particular emphasis on promoting direct foreign investment from the US to South Africa through the H-2A program in the agricultural sector.

read more
Official opening of Rand Merchant Bank (RMB)  office in New York a milestone occasion

Official opening of Rand Merchant Bank (RMB) office in New York a milestone occasion

The official opening of Rand Merchant Bank (RMB) office in New York on May 18, 2023, marked a significant milestone in strengthening financial ties between South Africa and the United States. The keynote speaker, South African Deputy Finance Minister Dr David Masondo, highlighted the crucial role of South African financial services in facilitating capital flows for Africa’s development.

read more