South Africa

South Africa

Orchestras making sweet music in the Mother City

Orchestras making sweet music in the Mother City

Can’t face any more bad news? Your birthday just came early. Cape Town is delivering outstanding musicians in bus loads, and they’re bringing audiences with them. By MARELISE VAN DER MERWE.

The first time Marvin Weavers performed in front of a large audience, he was so nervous he was not able to go to school that day.  “I just stayed at home and practised, making sure every note was perfect,” he says. “But it was quite amazing in the end. I think that must be every kid’s dream, to perform in a curtain-raiser in the City Hall and have your mom there, seeing you do that.”

Weavers, who is now Youth Education Development Co-ordinator for the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra (CPO), was a home-grown viola player who passed through the same programme he is now running. He was introduced to music at a young age through his church, the New Apostolic, where he first played the recorder. He later switched to viola, having received music lessons from a member of his congregation. He realised he had a passion for the arts, and gave everything he had to realise his career dream – including finding the time to study event management and business management in between, which gave him the foundation for his current position.

Weaver is one of hundreds of young musicians who have passed through the Cape Philharmonic Youth Development Programme to find his niche in the arts. At present, some 120 young people are doing the same.

Photo: Learners from Masidlale. Photo: Courtesy of CPO

The CPO has slowly but surely been undergoing a fundamental shift, says CEO Louis Heyneman. It is no longer about “dead white composers”, he explains – a change essential to maintaining relevance, but also survival.

This is no small battle. Globally, the fate of classical music is uncertain. “When it comes to classical music and American culture,” wrote Mark Vanhoenacker in Slate, “the fat lady hasn’t just sung.  Brünnhilde  has packed her bags and moved to Boca Raton”.

In Vanhoenacker’s words, classical music in the US has been “circling the drain for years”. A modest 5% increase in classical album sales in 2013 did not quite cover the sharp 21% decline the previous year. Classical radio stations were tanking, and the lack of public appetite for classical music simply did not match the extraordinarily high cost of formats like opera.

Meanwhile, recent years abroad have, in fact, still shown an overwhelming dominance by dead white men on the classical music menu. Among living composers, which are grossly under-represented, women are less represented still. Overall, women composers make up less than 2% of all music performed. This is consistent with multi-national data compiled by Bachtrack in 2016.

Photo: Cape Philharmonic Orchestra

This teetering is not a recent phenomenon. Mixed predictions emerged in a long-term study of international classical concert trends from 1990 onwards, where attendances decreased in eight out of 13 reports found (although seven out of 10 showed an increase in opera attendance.) Where there was a decline, reasons given were a lack of interest, a perception that classical music was for elites, lack of transport to venues, cultural differences, or lack of money for tickets.

Against this backdrop, the CPO is not doing too shabbily: its subscription base is growing. Nonetheless, it draws around 23% of funding from box office. Some 50% is from private donors.

In this context, the shift Heyneman mentions is significant. It adds nuance and an important difference in tone. This is not a one-sided “outreach” story. It is a helping hand from all sides. The young musicians’ future may lie with the orchestra, but the orchestra’s future depends on them.

The structure works something like this: at the top are the CPO board and Heyneman. On the next level are the CPO staff: office workers, the full-time orchestra members (47 full-time and 110 ad hoc), the Cape Philharmonic Youth Orchestra (CPYO), and the Cape Philharmonic Youth Wind Ensemble (CPYWE). Next level down: the Masidlale Project, active in Gugulethu, Atlantis, Langa, Nyanga, Atlantis, Khayelitsha, Cape Town, Pella and Mamre. “Masidlale” is taken from the isiXhosa for “let us play” and is a grass roots training project with learners as young as six or seven years old.

Photo: Learners from Masidlale. Photo: Courtesy of CPO

Masidlale is one of the initiatives under the CPO’s Youth Development and Education Programme (YDEP), which over the last 14 years has aimed to train future musicians. Masidlale aims to train learners who otherwise would have had little access to this genre of music, lessons, or instruments. Learners are taught in their mother tongue.

Alongside this, an instrument bank is also available for more advanced students as they progress. “As musicians become more advanced it becomes more difficult to play on a learning instrument,” explains Weaver. “We have some really good instruments that have been donated. Unfortunately, we do not have a lot, but those we do have are lent to the musicians who need them and maintained by us for as long as they are with the orchestra.” One trumpeter has a hand-made, imported Yamaha.

The YDEP – Weavers’ baby – comprises four aspects in total, namely the CPYP, the CPYWE, Masidlale, and the CPO Music Academy, an intensive music training workshop that takes place every Saturday for several hours. Several young learners have progressed from the Academy to the junior wind band, says Weavers, all from Mamre, and some as young as 12. Others, like cellist Dane Coetzee, have progressed from the youth orchestra to the CPO itself.

Photo: Pianist Ho-Young Moon performs with orchestra members. Photo courtesy of CPO.

Asked if there are any young musicians who stand out, Weavers pauses. Then names begin rolling: there are two violinists, Jordan Brooks and Joshua Lewis; Jordan is just 13. Shannon Thebus plays both the horn and organ; he’s wowing critics. “Every year there is a fresh crop of incredibly talented learners,” says Heyneman. “Every time, without fail, there are new musicians who will go far.”

The skills transfer is important, says Heyneman. Young musicians are mentored by the CPO’s musicians; in turn, they mentor younger musicians in the Academy. A useful side effect is that aspiring conductors are also able to develop their skills through the YDEP, which has so far birthed three winners of the Len van Zyl Conductors’ Competition.

But most importantly for all involved, says Weavers, the extremely intensive teaching, opportunity and encouragement bring out a side of the learners that is not necessarily visible beforehand. It teaches discipline, builds confidence, and more than that, delivers a level of exposure that would not otherwise be possible. The CPO, says Marketing Consultant Shirley de Kock Gueller, reaches over 50,000 people per year.

Photo: Learners from Masidlale. Photo: Courtesy of CPO

And the achievements of both the CPO and the YDEP are significant. Asked what they are proudest of, they hesitate. There’s a long list to choose from. Conductor Brandon Phillips won the Western Cape Government’s award for “outstanding achievements by the youth” in 2012 for his contribution to music. The CPYO toured to Gauteng, where it collaborated with the Orchestra Company and raised R55,000 for drought relief. It has managed acclaimed performances at the Suidoosterfees and KKNK; it has played at the Fiestas and Fleur du Cap awards. It has had multiple television performances and appeared in a Sean Penn movie entitled The Last Face. (Weavers and Gueller freely admit the part with the orchestra is probably the best bit, though.) The Wind Ensemble has played at the Cape Town Summer Music Festival and Infecting the City; it has also been invited to tour Germany in 2018 and host one of Germany’s acclaimed wind ensembles, the Ulm Wind Band, at the NAC Church in Athlone.

All of this is key preparation if the young musicians are to join the CPO proper, argues Weavers, which has performed with the likes of Lira, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Hugh Masekela, Freshly Ground, Deepak Pandit and Symphony of Ghazal, and others of similar ilk. It prepares them for a more dynamic take on orchestral performance, but it also gives them the exposure and confidence they need for a career as performers.

A diverse orchestra and a flexible approach, argues Heyneman, is good for everybody: it increases access for those who would like it, but it also stimulates creativity among the performers and it grows audiences. “In the end,” he says, “there is two-way learning.” DM

The CPO Spring concert season is now open and runs until 14 September. The Youth Music Festival is on 2 September. For more information, visit

Photo: Learners from Masidlale. Photo: Courtesy of CPO


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