By Anne Ruisi
When last year in his native South Africa Alex Fokkens heard about an opportunity to head the music department at the Alabama School of Fine Arts, he didn’t hesitate to apply.
“This job is exactly what I was looking for,” said the Hoover resident, who got the job and arrived in Birmingham a year ago this month. “I always enjoyed working with young people.”
Now he has the opportunity to work with even more budding musicians. Fokkens, who teaches and directs the school’s orchestra, also is the newly appointed conductor of the Alabama Symphony Youth Orchestra. He held the first weekly Sunday rehearsal with the youth orchestra Aug. 28.
As conductor, he’ll be working with orchestra members, mainly high school students with a few who are college aged. Most are from the Birmingham area, but some travel from Tuscaloosa and Huntsville.
There are 79 musicians, which is a good-sized orchestra, but he’s still looking for some percussionists to join, Fokkens said.
He said his goals for the youth orchestra are one of the reasons he was excited about the possibility of working at ASFA.
“You’ve got the opportunity to really mold the way they see music and how it (affects) their life, of bringing the ensemble together to create memorable moments,” Fokkens said, adding he also wants the young musicians to have fun.
“Not all of them will be professional musicians,” he noted, adding that participation in a youth orchestra teaches amazing life skills. “My ultimate goal is when they’re done, they feel like they have achieved something great and have been part of something incredible.”
Sunday rehearsals involve preparing for the youth orchestra’s three concerts this year. The first is Oct. 23 at 4 p.m. at the Performing Arts Center at Thompson High School in Alabaster.
The concert will feature a full program, including the popular overture from the Strauss operetta, “Die Fledermaus,” Tchaikovsky’s “Capriccio Italiene,” a piece the conductor described as “loud and fun” and four movements from Prokofiev’s ballet “Romeo and Juliet.”
Orchestra members also will play the overture to “The Boatswain’s Mate,” an opera by Ethel Smyth, an early 20th century English composer whose works are being rediscovered today.
The remaining concerts will be presented at Christmas and in April at the Alys Stephens Center.
While his new duties with the symphony Youth Orchestra are beginning, it’s clear Fokkens also relishes working with his students at ASFA.
“The school is remarkable,” he said, praising the faculty and the students, whom he said work hard to be better musicians. “I’m lucky to be a part of it.”
“This next generation is the future of the arts, the musicians, audience members, the patrons. It starts here,” he said.
From Cape Town to Birmingham
Coming to Alabama has been “a really wonderful opportunity for my family,” Fokkens said.
He and his wife, pianist Margaret Foxcroft, have three grown daughters, two of whom were born in the U.S., and a son who is studying theater at ASFA.
Fokkens was born in South Africa and raised in Cape Town, where he attended the University of Cape Town and earned his bachelor’s degree in music. He and his wife studied in Europe and then decided to pursue graduate studies in the U.S.
Fokkens earned his master’s degree in double bass performance from Texas Christian University in 1999 and pursued extensive graduate theory study, according to his biography on the Alabama Symphony Orchestra’s website.
He then went to South Dakota for six years, where he was director of orchestra activities and instructor of strings at Northern State University in Aberdeen. While there, he worked with a youth symphony orchestra.
South Africa beckoned the family home in 2005, and over the next 16 years, Fokken held a variety of musical posts. He was artistic director and CEO of the Free State Symphony Orchestra, music director of the Symphony Choir of Cape Town, music director and conductor of the University of Cape Town String Ensemble and Symphonic Band and resident conductor of the University of Cape Town Symphony Orchestra.
Fokkens has performed in La Turbie, France; Ravenna, Italy; Cardiff, Wales; Birmingham, England; and at the Royal Festival Hall in London.
When he accepted the ASFA job last year, COVID-19 meant it took six months to get the necessary paperwork before he and his family could move to Alabama. In Cape Town, where the family lived, the U.S. consulate was shut due to the pandemic, resulting in a delay. Once his work permit was approved, they were ready to leave for their new home.
They arrived in September 2021 and are enjoying their new lives here.
“We’ve been very happy moving to Birmingham,” he said, noting how beautiful the area is.
The family is still discovering their new home and they try to explore different areas, such as Red Mountain and Oak Mountain parks.
At home in his spare time – when he has spare time – he tries to “tame the backyard,” where a groundhog the family has nicknamed “Sir Chomp-a-Lot” has taken up residence.
“He eats a lot,” Fokkens joked.