BACH TO WORK

Cape Town Philharmonic fights to raise the curtain

By Tiara Walters 22 June 2020

As musicians persist at home, orchestra CEO Louis Heyneman is hopeful a wildlife virus won’t leave sheet music fluttering in empty halls forever.

It’s the silent pauses in the live concert hall that last for the briefest of eternities.

The pregnant anticipation before a performance. The tremulous stillness in a solo violin. That moment before the conductor draws her last intake of breath, which, in turn, powers her final instructions to the orchestra.

It’s a frozen second, as she leaps and suspends her toes above the podium. You might suppose Chagall, that master of painterly suspension, had wanted to keep those toes there. The whole orchestra, the string and the brass and the woodwind and the percussion sections and the soloist, seem forever poised in that iota of time before surrendering to the final flourish of notes.

And the short music of sacred silence that follows is tempting to preserve eternally — but for the first ripples of applause that both murder and make this split-second of post-performance bliss.

Although an aspect of the music died when Buddy Holly’s Beechcraft Bonanza hurtled into an Iowa cornfield in 1959, a wildlife-to-human disease would punch a gaping hole through the world of live classical music some 60 years later. Like HIV, bird flu, swine flu, Ebola and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome before it, the disease Covid-19 cuts a forensic trail straight back to people who interacted with sick or dead animals at some point.

And, like these diseases, Covid-19 has spawned a web of devastation as omnipotent as a lake-sized bucket of hagfish slime, which can expand to 10,000 times its original size. As natural disaster mostly does, this messy web has unfurled its tentacles into diverse areas of life: from amplifying racial tension across the world to silencing sweet moments of symphonic contemplation.

Live classical music in South Africa has also felt the sting of wildlife trade, associated with the early spread of Covid-19 through a former animal market in Wuhan, China.

Even before the pandemic, the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra (CPO) had wrangled within the competitive arena of live music by cultivating a “large group of loyal supporters”. That is, its survival strategy “over many years” was to create a “concert culture in Cape Town”, as CPO CEO Louis Heyneman told Daily Maverick in an interview.

Even more so today, the CPO is fighting to “stay in the hearts and minds” of these hard-won music lovers.

“The pandemic has brought concert life to a standstill: since mid-March we have been unable to perform in public,” said Heyneman.

The CPO’s box office losses have, in fact, run “into millions” and Heyneman was not hopeful that President Cyril Ramaphosa’s trumpet fare of a ministerial relief fund heralded much promise for this orchestra and its musicians.

The CPO has cancelled its autumn and winter seasons — as well as a gala outdoor opera at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens; an entire season of Swan Lake with the St Petersburg Ballet; a season of The Pirates of Penzance with the Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Cape Town; the Hennie Joubert Piano Competition; Suidoosterfees concerts; and several other commercial concerts.

By appealing to subscribers and other patrons to donate proceeds of purchased tickets, the CPO generated “some funds” to break the worst of the fall: “more than” R500,000 within the first week. Community initiatives such as Reddam House Constantia College’s “Playing it Forward” series, performed by music students, also raised funds through online concerts.

“But things will start getting tougher on all households and I expect the dramatic social needs of the poor will influence audiences’ generosity in the near future,” cautioned Heyneman. “We cannot rely on handouts for a long time.”

The CPO’s box office losses have, in fact, run “into millions” and Heyneman was not hopeful that President Cyril Ramaphosa’s trumpet fare of a ministerial relief fund heralded much promise for this orchestra and its musicians.

“We applied, like all the other arts and sports organisations… but with only R150-million in that pot, nobody will be saved by government funds,” he said. “In spite of applying early, we have not even had a reply in acknowledgement from national government.”

The orchestra regularly received “some funds from international funders” and “at least two organisations have indicated that they will help us again. But of course, we need much more to survive.”

Heyneman lamented that all this has meant “cutting operations to the bone – all in an effort to survive… We have started to lay off administrative positions and cut salaries proportionally to ensure our musicians can survive with us.”

For now, the CPO has relied largely on digital sleight of hand to replace its live concerts, producing several performance videos. Each is redolent with the poignancy of our most accomplished virtuosos playing for their lives, while also entertaining with the technical acuity demanded by a seamless online performance.

“You cannot rehearse using Zoom or Webex or any other internet app,” Heyneman explained. “The lag on the internet makes it impossible to perform together, so the video everybody makes follows a ‘click’ track — the same beat. Afterwards it’s painstakingly ‘stitched’ together, layer upon layer, and synchronised to the microsecond until it becomes the music that each musician performed in their home.”

At the time of writing, these videos had attracted some 90,000 views on YouTube.

Despite the videos reaping traction, Heyneman said he could not foresee a scenario where online shows would meaningfully usurp live concerts.

“Performing with a click track in your earphone is a bit alien to all musicians. All your life you are trained to listen to the musicians around you, to move emotionally and technically in tandem with them and in front of a live audience,” said Heyneman. To him, “that’s what music is about”.

A recording studio was a “different professional realm in music making”, he added. “Human beings are creative, and emotion subconsciously plays an important part of our lives. Virtual art and cyber music are art forms for the future, but will never replace the raw emotion of live music.”

Besides, monetising digital performances was a huge challenge, said Heyneman. This entailed “competing with the best in the world on an uneven playing field”.

“Self-discipline is a major part of being a successful musician… Life is so precious and volatile. A virus not visible to the naked eye has changed our lives forever. A mere three months ago, who would have thought the world would change so dramatically… We are only microcosmic elements in a vast universe.”

Perception-altering art always exudes an aura of “the other”: to appear divine, inspired, this kind of art creates a sense of the effortless superhuman. If athletics were performance art, so too one might view musical performance as a type of artletics. For the consummate artist, inspiration is often like the symbolic gesture of pouring hot oil into one’s ear: taking up a brush, a pen, a violin bow, day after day, year upon year – and, in the case of a maestro – decade after decade, is an act of inner violence when the sun is shining and the songbirds are coupling rapturously just beyond one’s window.

To keep themselves busy, the CPO’s members have been “practising, practising, practising”, mused Heyneman.

“Self-discipline is a major part of being a successful musician… Life is so precious and volatile. A virus not visible to the naked eye has changed our lives forever. A mere three months ago, who would have thought the world would change so dramatically… We are only microcosmic elements in a vast universe.”

Internationally, live classical music was equally assailed, Heyneman said. Everyone was “racking their brains to come up with solutions and hoping to be back on the concert stage as soon as possible. The truth, however, is nobody knows for sure and nobody could have been prepared for this calamity. The foremost orchestras and opera companies in the United States, for example, are as unsure about the future and sustainability as we are. The Metropolitan Opera furloughed all the members of its chorus and orchestra within weeks of the outbreak.”

Connecting the dots between keys, chords, notes and the human-induced changes sweeping across the skies and the surface of our planet would have been a laughable notion to most people before the pandemic shut down society. But as scientific consensus warns about extinctions, and hotspots like southern Africa warming up to 6°C within decades, it suddenly seems far-sighted to ask how all human activity – including audience-based art – may adapt to this transforming Earth.

When Mother Nature sends us “to our rooms for being arseholes”, to quote a recent Facebook post by Wilderness Foundation CEO Andrew Muir, how do we continue to reach beyond survival to those things that express the best of our species, and provide essential mental therapy – like classical music?

The Berliner Philharmoniker’s answer to changing times is a slick, high-definition “digital concert hall”, whose promotional trailer holds that “tradition is the spreading of fire and not the veneration of ashes”. Quoting composer Gustav Mahler, the message is that this reinvention breathes digital life into old traditions through behind-the-scenes content, educational programmes, documentaries, pre-recordings and live-streamed concerts (performed by reduced orchestras in empty halls according to medical guidelines). Registration provides limited content. A ticket or subscription gives “access to all live broadcasts and videos – as often as you like, on the device of your choice”.

The big question is, as Cape Town’s world-class city orchestra endures through sheer grit, apparently without much (if any) recent government support, will audiences return once restrictions ease on public gatherings the size of concert halls?

However, Heyneman pointed out, “quality live music like the digital concert hall is extremely expensive. The initial capital outlay is enormous; we simply cannot compete with it in the near future. Therefore, we have to concentrate on our local audiences and do something for and with them to survive.”

There is also the non-trivial fact that the German federal government in March pledged €50-billion to that country’s arts industry. At €25-billion (R500-billion), Ramaphosa’s total Covid-19 relief package is not exactly comparable.

According to the Department of Arts and Culture’s latest communication about its R150-million sector relief fund, the majority of 1,520 successful applicants have been paid, while appeals are being considered.

The department missed its own requested deadline for Daily Maverick’s questions about its funding mechanisms for the CPO – and is yet to respond.

The big question is, as Cape Town’s world-class city orchestra endures through sheer grit, apparently without much (if any) recent government support, will audiences return once restrictions ease on public gatherings the size of concert halls?

If the global north provides something of a crystal ball, at the end of May Taiwan’s National Symphony Orchestra was reportedly, according to the Financial Times, the international “starting gun for concert life to resume… here at last was an orchestra playing in front of a live audience in a concert hall”.

The Financial Times added that the live-streamed event was performed by only 30 musicians to an “audience of 500 in a 2,000-capacity hall. By mid-June, though, it is hoped that an orchestra of 70 or 80 will be playing to 1,000 people”.

“The purists will always prefer the concert hall or the opera house with the best acoustics. Classical music can only transport you if it is performed in the venue it has been ‘designed’ for.”

The omens, in other words, were “good”. Although major 2020/21 seasons like Canada’s Victoria Symphony were cancelled, “other venues and festivals around the world are promising public events in the near future”.

In September, the English National Opera premieres its drive-in live opera performances. Heyneman is not sold. For him, it is about the pomp and plush of a full house. Anything else is scratchy and discordant.

“Every single article I have seen about distancing at live concerts, filling every third seat and second row, proclaimed it impossible, unsustainable and a financial and social disaster,” he said.

“The purists will always prefer the concert hall or the opera house with the best acoustics. Classical music can only transport you if it is performed in the venue it has been ‘designed’ for.”

And, while Taiwan’s concert was a welcome ray of light, the country’s recorded Covid-19 tally of fewer than 500 cases and 10 deaths offers no compass to South Africa, which by Sunday had reached 97,302 cases and 1,930 deaths.

“I doubt whether any of our audiences are intimidated by concerts… it’s the magic moment when you feel carried away to a place of utter pleasure in the presence of a thousand other music lovers that is so precious and irreplaceable,” Heyneman added, wistfully.

“The only advantage of experiencing a broadcast or streamed concert is that you don’t have to dress up and leave your home, or you can watch and listen in the middle of the night, if you wish.”

The pandemic has had the strange effect of warping time – it seems life will never normalise until it does. Laundrettes creak open their doors; car guards, not seen in months, are suddenly back at their usual redoubts. It may feel eternally optimistic to imagine audiences shuffling into the CPO’s formal home – the Cape Town City Hall – in spring. Still, for a concert-hall romantic like Heyneman, hope springs eternal.

“‘Ons kyk die kat uit die boom’, as they say in Afrikaans,” he ventured. “We are carefully judging the situation, from a distance.” DM

  • The CPO will perform prerecorded works of Mozart, Mendelssohn, Elgar, Schubert and Dvořák for the first-ever virtual National Arts Festival, to be streamed from 25 June to 5 July.

See the CPO’s recent performance videos here: 

Lockdown Waltz, with the Cape Town City Ballet

Meditation from Thaïs by Jules Massenet

Cavalleria Rusticana by Pietro Mascagni

Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (baroque-style) by Enoch Sontonga

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