Music for the masses
SA classical music goes young and jazzy
SAXOPHONES, ELECTRIC BASSES and drum kits aren’t instruments readily associated with a classical orchestra. And with genres such as hip-hop, kwaito and electronica vying for young South Africans’ attention you wouldn’t think names such as Debussy and Brahms would be top of mind for anyone belonging to that generation.
The Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra (JPO) is challenging both those axioms. It’s launched an academy orchestra, where youngsters from historically disadvantaged backgrounds are given the opportunity to play alongside some of SA’s most accomplished classical musicians, including the JPO’s lead violinist Miroslav Chakaryan and cellist Susan Mouton.
“All our musicians understand we have to go ahead with transformation and they’re heavily involved,” says JPO MD Shadrack Bokaba, himself a violinist with the orchestra, having completed his BMus at the University of the Witwatersrand under respected violin lecturer Professor Walter Mony.
“When they teach we compensate them for teaching, but they always go the extra mile,” says Bokaba.
Not only do they gain practical experience but also take academic subjects towards a BMus in orchestral studies. The JPO has partnered with the University of South Africa’s music department to develop this internationally recognised qualification.
The JPO is paying for accommodation, meals, stipends, books and tuition, says Bokaba. “SA’s orchestras have been accused of not transforming and have been seen as Eurocentric,” says Bokaba. “The JPO is funded by Government and can’t be seen to be catering to the tastes of a small percentage of the country. We decided we’d reflect the demographics and to do that had to develop our own in-house training.”
At its first concert, held at Unisa’s ZK Matthews Hall at its main Pretoria campus, the academy orchestra performed not only classical works but also original compositions by celebrated Cape Town-born pianist Paul Hanmer. The works, including pieces from Hanmer’s critically lauded Trains to Taung album, were orchestrated by Hanmer and veteran South African producer, orchestrator and composer Peter McLea.
Distinguished local jazz musicians, such as saxophonist McCoy Mrubata, bassist Peter Sklair, trumpet and flugelhorn player Marcus Wyatt and drummer Kevin Gibson, performed Hanmer’s works together with the orchestra, lending a distinctive South African jazz feel to the lush harmonies played by the “traditional sections” of the orchestra.
Mixing the jazz and classical genres was deliberate, says Bokaba. “Technically, the challenges are very different. By exposing musicians to both genres at a young age we develop more well-rounded performers.”
Raising the awareness of classical music among South Africans has been a tough task, but not insurmountable. “There’s already a deeply rooted choral tradition in the townships. We work with community-based choirs and find ways of taking the orchestra to the people.” The JPO will be performing in Soweto in November, and it regularly gives concerts at schools.
Still, there’s a long way to go. The academy orchestra’s debut concert was not well attended and wasn’t recorded for rebroadcast purposes. And staging such a performance, with so many specialised players involved, is a costly endeavour. Will SA’s public be treated to more of this?
“It all depends on funding,” says Bokaba. “When we first sat with Paul Hanmer, the original idea was that it was a one-off event. However, we’d like to take it on the road.”
The JPO (funds permitting) is committed to commissioning more original works. One of Hanmer’s pieces played at the concert – Ballad for Christinah Molatlhegi – was written specifically for that performance.
Funding woes plagued the orchestra for many years. State funding of its predecessor, the National Symphony Orchestra, was pulled early in 2000, resulting in its closure. Members of that orchestra got together to relaunch under its current name, with the backing of corporate entities, although the flow of funds was never certain.
But that’s changed for the better. The National Lottery Fund and the Department of Arts & Culture now provide the bulk of the R18m/year required to keep the orchestra going. “The drive now is to get companies to match Government,” says Bokaba. Anglo American is a major sponsor and so are Bidvest, Discovery and MTN. Petrochemicals giant Sasol is also due to come on board, he says.