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And the orchestras played on: JHB/KZN Philharmonic CEO confident summer season will go ahead

And the orchestras played on: JHB/KZN Philharmonic CEO confident summer season will go ahead
Bongani Tembe (left) and Miroslav Chakaryan (right)

Durban and Johannesburg’s major orchestras say they’re bucking the trends of an arts industry harshly disrupted by Covid-19.

According to the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra (JPO) and KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestra (KZN Phil), a mammoth R2-million in ticket sales were “forfeited” through their cancelled winter season.

Nonetheless, CEO and artistic director Bongani Tembe told Daily Maverick that the orchestras’ models have allowed for staff compensation. Describing himself as an “eternal optimist”, the long-time classical music entrepreneur insists there “should” be “enough” in the kitty to “carry the orchestras into the next financial year”.

If this proves the case, it would be a welcome success story while some of the industry’s most established players are wondering if they’ll make it through the coming weeks.

In terms of staying power, Tembe has a sturdy concertmaster in Miroslav Chakaryan, a Bulgarian-born violinist from a musical family who has led the JPO since 2001.

Chakaryan has called on one of his greatest career lessons to see himself through the global shutdown.

“I’ve learnt the importance of staying in one place for a long time,” he said. “The memories of my performances have been a constant companion to me during the lockdown.”

For him, classical music presents the “highest level of human spirituality” — “it’s existed as an art form for centuries and I believe and truly hope it’ll continue to exist in its purest form far into the future”. He tacitly acknowledges, however, the line between staying put and stagnating. To avoid crossing that line, the violinist said he believes the JPO has to “start somewhere to develop a digital audience”.

To better understand how the pandemic has hastened the need for industry change, Daily Maverick asked Tembe how both orchestras’ standard and growing digital models may sustain them during torrid times.

(This interview was edited.) 

TW: How has the pandemic impacted on your operations?

BT: We’ve had to cancel our winter symphony season (May/June) in Durban and Johannesburg. Obviously, this means a loss of revenue from ticket sales [both orchestras forfeited some R2-million in ticket sales for the winter season]. This also means it’s not easy for us to fulfil our mission of presenting world-class concerts and implementing an education and community-engagement programme.

TW: How has the pandemic changed our classical music experience?

BT: Through our virtual performances, we’ve reached a much wider and more diverse audience. Our virtual performance of Amazing Grace went viral – we produced it to thank frontline health workers. We even got a call from Reuters who distributed it to their clients around the world.

We also intertwined Brahms’ Lullaby with Thula Thula – the Zulu lullaby sung by mothers for generations. These two lullabies originate from different continents, but both worked very well together musically and the shift from one to the other was seamless.

Under normal circumstances we might not have conceived such a project.

TW: What does it take to produce a seamless online performance? Can you rely on skill or are there other considerations?

BT: It helps that we’re dealing with musicians who’ve devoted years to hone their skills. Often, I select a theme I’d like the orchestras to focus on, engaging a music arranger and laying out a click track so all musicians play to the same rhythm. A production company aligns the music with carefully selected images. I work closely with the production company to conceptualise the video.

For [our Africa Day video], I added singers whom I had to conduct in a studio (observing strict and safe social distancing). This is a huge team effort – it involves more than 100 artists, technical staff and administration staff.

TW: Have you kept orchestra members on full pay? If not, how are they surviving now?

BT: For KZN Phil, musicians receive a steady, predetermined monthly salary, often with healthcare, pension and housing benefits. They’re either permanent employees or work full-time on a fixed-term contract of between one to three years.

Musicians are at the company’s disposal almost on a 24-hour basis. They also get together almost six days a week to rehearse and perform. The potential disadvantage is that one has a steady bill to pay every month. Our monthly salary bill is about R2-million. When grants are delayed or reduced, there’s a lot to juggle.

KZN Phil members have been paid their full salary with benefits throughout this national lockdown.

JPO’s business model looks more like the business models of the London-based major orchestras. Musicians are paid per session worked (as opposed to monthly full-time salaries). The advantage is that musicians have more control of their time. We give them a schedule in advance and then they plan their gigs and pursue all sorts of endeavours around that schedule.

The JPO board took a view that it cares a lot about the financial well-being of musicians and therefore we offered them 50% cash of what they would’ve earned during the winter season. Also, they’re earning fees through online and virtual performances.

Some of our JPO musicians have already begun receiving some payouts from the [National Department of Sport, Arts and Culture]. In addition, a lot of them have started teaching their students virtually.

Fortunately, we’ve not had a single donor withdraw their funding.

TW: How much revenue has been generated by other initiatives? How does this meet your commitments into the next financial year?

BT: Our ability to generate revenue is limited right now. Subject to the renewal of grants from local and national governments (we’re positive these grants will be renewed), funding should be enough to carry both orchestras into the next financial year.

Both orchestras receive substantial funding from all three levels of government, because they believe in our mission of utilising music to bring together people of all races and ages and generally enhance the quality of life of all South Africans through a variety of comprehensive programmes. We’re very grateful for that.

TW: Has the international classical music world presented best-practice “pandemic” solutions? How could these be applied locally?

BT: The big arts companies in the US and some parts of Europe already had advanced online programmes before this crisis. Almost all their performances are professionally recorded and transmitted (which, by the way, is very expensive).

Medium to smaller companies around the world, including our arts companies in South Africa, hadn’t developed a consistent and advanced online arts programme. In many instances, we’ve had to start programmes from scratch.

While expensive, we’ll need, as time progresses, to develop our capacity to professionally capture every performance and even behind-the-scenes stories and interviews. At JPO, I started a programme with Joburg TV in 2017. As a result, we have a healthy reservoir of footage.

TW: Non-profit projects such as US-based Music Heals Us perform for those in need: from prisoners to refugees, possibly paying some kind of fee to performing musicians. Could such projects work as a model for freelancers and/or orchestras in South Africa? 

BT: At KZN Phil, we’ve had quite a few programmes similar to Music Heals Us. Symphony of Hope entails the orchestra going to retirement homes to perform for the elderly every month.

We also have an advanced schools programme which reaches more than 30,000 learners from townships, rural areas and other under-served areas. We’ve begun weekly visits to schools in townships, reaching thousands of learners every year. Last year, the JPO was awarded a special prize by the Gauteng Department of Education for being a non-education entity that made a valuable contribution to learning.

These missions are usually undertaken by a large part of the orchestra (at least 30 musicians) – we’re looking at ways of continuing some of these projects online/virtually, even if it’s on a much smaller scale.

TW: What are the challenges/solutions to monetising digital access?

BT: The first challenge is to have good-quality digital material; equipment to capture performances at a high professional level is very expensive. As you monetise this platform, people will expect excellent digital quality. We’ll then have to weigh the benefits versus the financial outlay.

The other challenge is that for a live performance each person buys a ticket. For digital access, one person can buy a ticket and a household can watch that performance. So unless you’re able to draw on hundreds of thousands more people, you could end up losing financially.

TW: Have you seen trends towards more online teaching?

BT: Our musicians are starting to teach online. One of them told me she is teaching 16 of her 20 students online. We’re advanced in our plans to digitise our education concerts and programmes for schools. This will include displaying and teaching students about each orchestral instrument and where and how it fits into the whole orchestral family, and introducing them to a variety of the orchestra music repertoire.

TW: What does live classical music look like over the next decade?

BT: Classical music has survived for hundreds of years. I believe it’ll thrive during the next decade — people need more beauty in their lives. It’s also now more accessible to a wider audience.

TW: What can be done to make audiences feel safer in future?

BT: We are and will continue to follow all protocols set down by government. Our musicians’ and patrons’ health and safety are of paramount importance.

Safety measures will probably include temperature checks, adding more performances so that audiences may sit one or two seats apart. People will also have to wear masks during performances. We’re already thinking of branding some masks with the JPO and KZN Phil logos and adding a small fee to the ticket price to include these.

TW: Are you planning for the spring/summer seasons to go ahead?

BT: We hope our early spring season in late August to early September will go ahead (this seems unlikely). If that does not happen, I’m positive our summer season in late October to end November will go ahead.

TW: What can we learn from history about returning to concert halls after pandemics?

BT: After the 1918 flu pandemic, commercial radio hadn’t been instituted yet, let alone television or the internet. Today, people have a multitude of streaming options available, and may choose to remain at home for a while, even when it’s safe to return to concert halls.

On the balance and, as an eternal optimist, I think we’ll do much better for a couple of years after Covid-19. The absence of live concerts has made people realise how important they were as part of our weekly lives.

I think we’ll also capitalise on the new audiences that we have gained via our virtual performances.

TW: How can the public support you right now?

BT: The public could donate to orchestras and continue sharing our videos and other online material with their friends and family. This will ensure we keep in touch with the public and that interest in orchestral music does not diminish during this time. In fact, there is potential that it may grow as it reaches a wider audience. DM/ML

The KZN Phil is performing at the Virtual National Arts Festival. To watch this prerecorded performance by end July, buy tickets here

Miroslav Chakaryan performs with cellist wife Susan Mouton as part of a classical trio on the Pierneefteater’s digital platform. To attend the prerecorded performance, buy tickets here from 4 July. 

To watch the JPO’s YouTube performances, visit their channel here

According to Tembe, the following entities are financial supporters of the orchestras:  

  • For KZN Phil eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality; KwaZulu-Natal Provincial Department of Sports, Recreation and Culture; National Department of Sport, Arts and Culture; Rupert Music Foundation; Oppenheimer Memorial Trust; and Capital Hospital Group. For JPO – City of Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipality; National Department of Sport, Arts and Culture; Oppenheimer Memorial Trust; and the Javett Foundation. In 2017, the orchestra “received an anonymous donation of R20-million, of which R10-million has been safely invested”.

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