Mu­sic for the masses

SA clas­si­cal mu­sic goes young and jazzy

Finweek English Edition - - News -

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.

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