Life, etc

South Africa: A cultural war zone

By J Brooks Spector 18 March 2013

This past week’s cultural activities – an unprecedented national tour across South Africa by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (RCO) from the Netherlands and a new production of the classic ballet work, Don Quixote, in Johannesburg – could easily be read as denial of the intensive care status of too many of the country’s key cultural institutions. J BROOKS SPECTOR looked in on these events, but he also got to thinking about the larger circumstances of the country’s cultural universe.

The RCO is clearly one of the world’s great orchestral ensembles – some critics simply call it the world’s best group. Now it is celebrating the anniversary of its 125-year tradition of excellence. Its reputation has been earned while it has been under the baton of such redoubtable conductors as Willem Mengelberg, Eugen Jochum, Pierre Monteux, Bruno Walter, Bernard Haitink and other greats – and a long tradition of excellent recordings further spreading its reputation.

On this particular celebratory world tour to all six of the globe’s inhabited continents, Charles Dutoit has been conducting the orchestra; this in addition to his role as principal conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in the UK and an association with the Philadelphia Orchestra in America, among other commitments. Dutoit has been one of the world’s most sought-after orchestral leaders for years and he has around 170 recordings to his credit, including numerous award-winning recordings with the Montreal Symphony. Over the years, Dutoit has worked with leading ensembles pretty much everywhere – and he keeps homes and apartments around the world in Switzerland, Paris, Montreal, Buenos Aires and Tokyo supporting his schedule.

This time around, in a tour that was in association with the KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic (celebrating its 30th anniversary), the RCO did not disappoint audience members who streamed in to hear its concerts in Cape Town, Durban and Pretoria and KZN Philharmonic head Bongani Tembe deserves much credit for securing this South Africa tour. This RCO tour also included workshop-style programmes in Cape Town, Umlazi and a schools concert in Soweto – featuring Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf.

In the three full-scale concerts, the RCO performed the infrequently heard concert overture, Cyrano de Bergerac by late romantic era Dutch composer Johan Wagenaar; together with those ultra plus ultra orchestral warhorses, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and Brahms’ First Symphony. The extraordinarily talented young Dutch violinist, Janine Jansen, was the soloist for the violin concerto.

Wagenaar’s work was tuneful and energetic, giving an evocative sense of the de Bergerac storyline, although it seemed like a warm-up for Richard Strauss’s orchestral tone poems and operatic themes with the horn section a central feature of the work. Naturally, the Tchaikovsky and Brahms were performed with great precision and clarity to the visible enjoyment of the audience. Jansen gave a wonderfully mellow, even playful rendition of the difficult solo part in the Tchaikovsky concerto. Then, in the Brahms symphony, the RCO offered its audiences a kind of aural instruction manual that clarified just how Brahms’s contrapuntal textures became this well-loved symphony. By the time the RCO reached the symphony’s final movement, their performance generated smiles of appreciation as the work reached its majestic conclusion.

Given her spirited playing, not surprisingly, Jansen was called back for an encore – and she offered an intimate, unaccompanied Bach violin partita. Jansen’s loving embrace of this encore, short though it was, made one wish she had also been giving a solo recital or chamber concert on a different night. And after the orchestra had completed its programme, it returned to give a rousing Hungarian Rhapsody rounding out the night.

With so much right with their performance, what could possibly have been wrong with the evening? For one thing, this programme contrived to limit an audience’s understanding of just what a group like the RCO is actually capable of producing musically. Where, for example, was any composition drawn from amongst the great works of the 20th century – from composers like Sibelius, Mahler, Ravel, Rachmaninov or still more recent figures – or still earlier works from figures like Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelsohn or so many others, rather than a concert in which all the works had been composed essentially within the span of one generation – and where the two major works of the evening had actually been published within two years of each other?

Was it a fear on someone’s part that South Africa’s presumed provincial audiences would be more reluctant to purchase tickets for anything other than the biggest, “best-est”, showiest hits of the late romantic repertoire? But besides entertaining the audiences, with a major cultural event like this tour there is also the opportunity that such efforts could expand the musical horizons of its audiences. Given the RCO’s golden global reputation, and with a near-unique opportunity to do something like that in South Africa, that chance was sidestepped.

Meanwhile, over in Johannesburg, the South African Mzansi Ballet (SAMB) has been presenting its production, adapted from the original Marius Petipa choreography, for Ludwig Minkus’s Don Quixote. Don Quixote is a rollicking work that unexpectedly makes the “Knight of the Doleful Countenance” something of a bit player in the storyline that actually revolves around the ultimately successful pursuit of village flirt, Kitri, by her lover, Basilio, the penurious barber, rather than the foppish nobleman Kitri’s father had picked out for her. In a season that runs through most of March, the SAMB has wisely decided to build on its growing international connections, bringing in instructors from Cuba and dancers the United States this time around, including Michaela DePrince, the young woman who had been rescued from the barbaric civil war in Sierra Leone where she had become an orphan, now back for a return visit. Dancing triumphantly in Johannesburg last year, DePrince has since gone on to join the newly rejuvenated Dance Theatre of Harlem in New York City. Performing on the night this writer attended, Brooklyn Mack of the Washington Ballet took the role of Basilio, making of him a winsome, then joyful boy who finally gets his girl after a bit of trickery and deceit.

During a break in the rehearsals and drills, and speaking about how he got into ballet while growing up in South Carolina (think the Free State with more forests, perhaps), Mack explained that initially he really wanted to play football competitively more than anything else, but eventually fell for the physicality of ballet instead (even though he remains a fan of football) to the intense relief of his mother. In one of his first professional places, he had joined the famous Joffrey Ballet in Chicago. He explained that sadly this was not his best experience as a dancer – Chicago’s winter weather was astonishing for him, he knew no one in that big city and his girl friend broke up with him by BlackBerry. He’s obviously made of tough stuff, though. He has survived and thrived and is now settled into the Washington Ballet Company. The man has an infectious smile that lights up his whole face – and that in turn carries over to his role on stage as he takes on the persona of Basilio.

Meanwhile, Dirk Badenhorst, the head of the SAMB, has been aggressively expanding the international connections and reach of this company – built out of his own Mzansi Ballet and the older SA Ballet Theatre. Later this year, Badenhorst plans to bring the illustrious Alicia Alonso, the 92-year old inspiration and still-guiding light of the Cuban National Ballet (despite her blindness and age), as well as six other Cuban dancers for an international ballet gala.

This vigorous, enthusiastic Don Quixote does have one or two things to iron out to fully deliver on its promise such as a pre-recorded soundtrack that has an occasional unexpected sound gap . But this is a young company and everyone associated with it feels the possibilities of future, further growth in artistic quality and strength.

One tangible demonstration of this new energy is the inclusion of short works by school dance programmes during the intermission between acts one and two. It is an early outcome coming out of an intervention by the Harvard Business School that has been designed to build relations for the future with new or expanded audiences. For Don Quixote, the l’Academie de Danse and the National School of the Arts have been strutting their stuff for audiences. The first dance was an inventive but abstract work. For the second, the NSA offered a modern Spanish dance that cleverly played off elements in Don Quixote, even including a live guitar accompaniment on stage. Such “new” audiences will of course be crucial for the success of a cultural group like the SAMB for the future.

But both this kind of international orchestral visit and its further spinoffs and the SAMB’s growing dance programme require money – lots of it – along with strong institutional commitments and long term support. In the case of the RCO, of course, they and the KZN Philharmonic were fortunate in gaining support from three Dutch major multinationals as well as the three tiers of government here for this South African tour. But other music institutions such as the Johannesburg Philharmonic – what with its recent near-death experience, still-fragile management and still-dire financial circumstances – are less fortunate, despite being located right in the midst of the country’s economic and financial heartland. 

Despite government announcements about promises of a new skills academy, money for a traveling performances fund to support moving important theatrical works around the country or similar ventures, there remains a gap in an understanding of the need to knit together – and fund – the many training and skills development programmes in art forms like classical music and ballet. Rather than sustained government bolstering beyond those sometimes problematic grants from the Lottery, the existence of such groups has often been sustained by the ingenuity and energy of private sponsors and funders. Instead, with government, what happens too often is the easier path of promising a new institute, monument or facility – like a women’s historic memory centre planned for the plaza adjacent to the State Theatre in Pretoria to the tune of some R50 million or so – despite the current theatre’s already underused venues. Or, good money continues to go to a place like the Windybrow Theatre in the Johannesburg CBD, where its output of programmes continues to shrink, or where the physical plant of the State Theatre continues to decay. (On our most recent visit there, for example, its restaurant announced it was not serving any pre-performance meals – restaurant staff said they were unaware of the orchestra performance that night and the consequent demands for dining by concert patrons.)

Instead of “monumentalism”, this writer believes it is crucial for the Department of Arts and Culture to leverage its position and budget to build mutually supportive linkages between the nation’s disparate training programmes and initiatives, identifying talent early and nurturing it effectively through the years required to develop that talent to the fullest extent possible. Then the government needs to build on its international connections to arrange for support for advanced training both in South Africa and abroad for the most talented and dedicated. While this writer rarely points to China or Cuba as exemplars of best practice in many areas, it is clear that both nations have achieved enviable records in the arts – identifying the fullest possible range of talent from throughout their respective populations. And the results are now clearly visible for all to see in the quality of their performers.

Sometimes it even seems the local powers that be are uncomfortable with classical music and dance as art forms, subconsciously assuming, perhaps, that these are subversive art forms – or that perhaps they are inauthentic to the real African experience, and that they would rather support ethnic dance groups or pop musicians instead. But that would be just as wrongheaded as the bigots who too often and for too long kept Africans (or black Americans) out of just such areas, until courageous figures like classical dancer and choreographer Arthur Mitchell and opera singer Leontyne Price in the US; or music educator Khabi Mngoma (singer Sibongile Khumalo’s late father) and composer Mzilikazi Khumalo in South Africa challenged such presumptions and prejudice – and thereby helped clear the path for everyone else who followed in their paths. But until this happens in South Africa routinely, too many of the best young performers will drift away from their disciplines, their talents unrewarded or honed sufficiently to make them available to the world’s audiences in the future. And that would be a terrible waste indeed. DM

Photo: Brooklyn Mack of the Washington Ballet. His partner in the red dress is MS Sanmarie Kreuzhuber as Kitri.

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"Take a chance, won't you? Knock down the fences which divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison you. Reach out. Freedom lies just on the other side." ~ Thurgood Marshall

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