Maintaining an orchestra for five decades may be a major financial and administrative feat, but finding players for as ambitious a work as Stravinsky's ‘Rite of Spring’ certainly doesn’t seem to be. While mainstream musical taste is slowly being drowned in the mindless repetition of thud-thud trance and the big buttock-worshipping lyrical nausea of modern pop, this small but fiercely present corner of a corner of South Africa’s music scene is not dwindling into insignificance as so many predicted. On the contrary, the youth are determinedly and voluntarily keeping it alive year after year – and attracting international attention in the process. By DIANA NEILLE.
The sound of a familiar symphony in ragged bits and pieces haltingly fills up a Cape Town NG Kerksaal on a Thursday morning as, one by one, the members of the South African National Youth Orchestra (SANYO) arrive, hollow-eyed and bleating for coffee but cheerfully early, for rehearsal.
This routine is nonchalantly passé but-in-a-cool-way for those who’ve made an annual pilgrimage out of “Nationals” – a week-long intensive orchestra workshop that sees 80 to 100 youngsters preparing a challenging classical repertoire with a respected foreign conductor; culminating in a series of prestigious concerts. For others, the newcomers, it’s day seven of an experience that will likely shape their future school or varsity holiday plans for several years to come.
Taking their prized places in the concave half-circle of trust and belonging that has symbolised the creation space of the most collaborative kind of music for over 300 years, this ragtag group seems wholly at ease with one another and oblivious to variations in age and race; skill and background and socio-economic standing; matric results and number of Facebook friends. Its ranks are bolstered on this auspicious occasion of the orchestra’s 50th anniversary by a handful of alumni, themselves ranging in age from 20s to 70s. In the half-circle of belonging, who you are, your age and where you come from are all secondary factors to the music you make together.
This year’s programme boasts the notoriously challenging symphony, The Rite of Spring, written in 1913 by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky and performed only a handful of times in South Africa. It tells the story of a pagan celebration in which a young girl, offered up for sacrifice, dances herself to death before a gathering of elders to propitiate the god of spring. At 8:59:59 am the frenetic babble of flutes and oboes repetitively practising particularly hard passages over one another and the confused dissonance of 20 violins running scales against the jarring, birdlike punctuation of the E-flat clarinet call all fade away immediately as the maestro – the conductor – steps up to his stand. The tuning ‘A’ is given and the day’s labour of love diligently begins.
Maintaining an orchestra for five decades may be a major financial and administrative feat, but finding players certainly doesn’t seem to be. While mainstream musical taste is slowly being drowned in the mindless sameness of thud thud trance and the big buttock-worshipping lyrical nausea of modern pop, this small but fiercely present corner of a corner of South Africa’s music scene is not dwindling into insignificance as so many projected. On the contrary, the youth are determinedly and voluntarily keeping it alive year after year – and attracting international attention in the process.
A week’s worth of intensive rehearsal all culminated in a series of successful concerts at City Hall in Cape Town and at Regina Mundi Church in Soweto this past weekend, conducted by Grammy award-winner Osmo Vänskä.
In the past four years alone the orchestra foundation has played host to celebrated British conductor, Sir Roger Norrington and members of the Zurich Chamber Orchestra, Norway’s Bjørn Breistein, the Queensland Symphony Orchestra’s Stephen Phillips, top Swedish conductor Frederik Burstedt and his Grammy award-winning colleague Magnus Lindgren; world-renowned flautist Sir James Galway and United Nations Human Rights Commission Goodwill Ambassador and singer Barbara Hendricks, who performed with SANYO at a rousing Kirstenbosch Summer Sunsets Concert last Sunday. SANYO has also been affiliated with the likes of local favourites Robert Pickup, Judith Sephuma, Jimmy Nevis and Jon Savage; and has won the praise and formal patronage of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
“When our papers are full of so-called racist attacks, it’s just so fantastic to have an orchestra that seeks to be representative,” said Tutu following the concert on Sunday.
“I like music and I like young people. And when they are together, producing harmony, it’s so important for our country that that message is carried across,” he said.
“What a wonderful image you are of what we want our country to be,” he told the orchestra in a video address.
Each year dozens of young musicians have direct access to these world-class musicians and public figures, taking intensive workshops, rehearsing and performing with them; eating, chatting, relaxing and partying with them. Through the foundation many young musicians have travelled the country or been placed in scholarship or exchange programmes overseas. Add to this their own broad-based diversity and you have a microcosm of South Africa’s ideal society, as Archbishop Tutu put it – one exposed to culturally rich and mind-broadening conversations from a young age, based on a common language and shared interests that few of their non-musical peers may ever get to experience.
“Seeing young people working together for the first time, from completely different backgrounds – when they don’t need me and I can just guide them to work together, then I know I’m doing a good job,” said conductor Fredrik Burstedt.
“I want to make them want to play together. And if you look at the history of the country and the diverse backgrounds of the young people, that’s exactly what needs to happen, in the orchestra and in society,” he said.
Barbara Hendricks, who has dedicated a large portion of her life and career to fighting the cause of refugees and general human rights internationally, spoke too of the power of music to unite and transform.
“I think music is a very strong healing tool in many ways, but particularly when people make music together,” she said.
“It cannot stop wars. To go and play in the middle of a conflict would not stop a war. But music has power to remind us that we are all a member of the same family, which is humanity.”
That’s what forms the cornerstone of the SANYO Foundation’s vision: uniting and unifying through the universal language of music. Overcoming imposed cultural, language and socio-economic barriers. Helping previously disadvantaged youth reach their full musical potential. All lofty ideals and worthy words that could be and often are seen as whimsical, unrealistic and inappropriate in the South African context, given the historical nature and origins of classical music, coupled with the constant pull in focus of mass unemployment, the bitterly prevailing lack of social cohesion and an imminent economic crisis. Where in a hungry, impoverished, marginalised household in rural South Africa does classical music have a place or a purpose?
SANYO Chief Operating Officer Sophia Welz would argue that violinist Anele Mhlahlo, who grew up in Imizamo Yethu township in Hout Bay, and who is now resident at the Cleveland Institute of Music in the States after playing in SANYO for several years, found value in it. As do dozens of young musicians volunteering to spend their June and December holidays at Nationals year in and year out, who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, with no musicians in their families at all and very little means to pursue training. And yet they choose classical music, not just as a hobby, but as a potential career. They practice the Bach partitas from 1720 and whistle the syncopated melodies of Stravinsky while they carefully pack their instruments away after a four-hour rehearsal. They are the ones that are quietly keeping this small but revered industry alive and relevant in South Africa, encouraging international names to visit and give of their time and expertise. They and a dynamic group of musicians turned civil servants, led tirelessly by Welz, who have dedicated their careers to ensuring orchestras are still around 10 years from now.
Welz, who believes “well-rounded musicians become well-rounded people,” has managed to secure ongoing funding at a time when spending on the arts is almost unheard of. With Heritage lumped in to the Department of Arts and Culture, diluting the available funds significantly; and R300 million-worth of budget allocation reportedly frittered away after Minister Nathi Mthethwa pulled the plug on a cultural precinct being built near Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini’s Enyokeni Palace in KwaZulu-Natal last week, very few opportunities for grants from government can be expected. The National Lotteries Board receives thousands of applications from charities and organisations desperate for funding for arts and culture and sports and recreation every year, only a fraction of which can be assisted. In 2011/2012, R1,7 billion was allocated by the National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund, of which only 28 percent went to Arts, Culture and National Heritage.
By working from a social development basis and fostering ongoing opportunities for young musicians to continue their craft through securing private funding in lieu of government support, Welz and her team have been able to not only keep the orchestra performing, but maintain and continue to elevate the already high standard. It’s an ongoing effort in a quest to grow and develop at the same pace as the current demand from the youth, but one which has 50 years’ worth of experience to sustain it.
And so it becomes a matter of a will and a way. Because in the end, though probably soppy to those who have not experienced it first-hand, every orchestral musician, demographic qualifiers be damned, will agree with Fredrik Burstedt that “there are no language borders or boundaries in music. As a musician you can work with anyone that can make music, regardless if we can’t talk to each other, regardless of what background we have, we can still make music and meet”. DM
Photo: Members of the South African National Youth Orchestra perform at Kirstenbosch on November 30. (Jozua Loots)