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From Madiba to Mahler: Ben Zander’s inspired musical message to all South Africans

From Madiba to Mahler: Ben Zander’s inspired musical message to all South Africans
Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, speaks at the 2011 World Business Forum in New York, U.S., on Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2011. The World Business Forum is an annual global business summit for the executive community, where global icons debate the most pressing issues of the day. Photographer: Peter Foley/Bloomberg via Getty Images

‘Musicking’ is not only a matter of making music but just as much of receiving it, and South Africa, time and again, turns out to be one of the more interesting musical places in the world.

There was a time when concert reviews were considered newsworthy contributions of general importance, making them a standard feature of any serious news outlet. However, the genre seems by now to have been eliminated from all South African media platforms and looks in rapid decline in other countries as well. 

A number of reasons might explain this trend. As the Covid pandemic enticed policymakers to distinguish between more and less important matters and services, music has officially been declared a non-essential service or activity in many countries worldwide. Moreover, the categories of ‘Western’ or ‘Classical’ music — traditionally the subjects of music reviews — have long since become highly contentious through their perceived or real associations with Eurocentrism, colonialism, elitism, chauvinism and a number of other ‘isms’. 

And finally, many rather irrelevant write-ups (with an undue focus on the exceptional, aggrandizing virtuosos, maestros, masterworks, swooning about dazzling technique, fast passagework and high notes, or — worst of all — by presenting half-baked music history and form analysis lessons) may have contributed to a decline of their very own making.

But perhaps the time has come to reverse this trend, or rather to re-invent the concert write-up as a detailed account of what happens at concerts and a wider reflection on what actually happens on such occasions that might not immediately meet the eye or the ear. 

Allow me to explain what I mean by reporting on an event that took place at Cape Town’s City Hall earlier this week. On the surface, it was just another one of many classical concerts that are regularly hosted at this Edwardian venue. And — just to demonstrate how damaging the reductionist employment of certain categories can be — I could go on to scare most South Africans away by adding that the concert was featuring a European symphonic masterwork by a long-dead, male composer performed by a touring group of foreigners directed by a world-famous octogenarian conductor.

Yes, all of that applies. But on this level, it is a rather meaningless summary. For anyone willing to cut through the implicit ideological clutter, much more is to be gained. 

To get the facts out of the way: On Tuesday, 20 June 2023, the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra (BPYO) conducted by Benjamin Zander and in collaboration with the Gauteng Choristers (directed by Sidwell Mhlongo) performed Gustav Mahler’s monumental Symphony No 2, the so-called Resurrection Symphony. The concert was part of the BPYO’s current tour of South Africa with previous performances in Soweto and two final appearances at the National Arts Festival in Makhanda.

So what was so newsworthy about the occasion? Having had the privilege of being part of the spellbound audience in the packed city hall, I believe to have witnessed an extraordinary ‘coming together’ of a number of factors that are worth unpacking individually.

Being an unusually versatile personality and widely recognised musical authority, it seems appropriate to begin with Benjamin Zander and mention some of his accolades: Well-known teacher (of ‘one buttock-playing’ fame), best-selling author (of ‘The Art of Possibility’), impresario (founder of the Boston Philharmonic and Philharmonic Youth Orchestras), conductor and recording artist (notably with the Philharmonic Orchestra, London), leadership coach, public speaker (at such forums as the Davos World Economic Forum) with a very strong online presence (20 million TED talk views and the music resource platform of the Benjamin Zander Centre), etc. 

The rare opportunity to experience such an illustrious musician in action might already have been enough of a drawcard for South Africans to flock to any of his performances. Not surprisingly, many young musicians lined up after the concert to hand him personal letters or have him sign their copies of his book. And, as was to be expected, what stood out most prominently on meeting Zander were his qualities of a Mensch, devoid of pretence and mindfully devoted to the task at hand: Guiding his players through a most challenging musical and spiritual exploration and seeing to it that everyone — the audience included — would come back from that journey much inspired and enriched. 

The Youth (Orchestra) factor

Gathered on stage were just short of 120 instrumentalists between the ages of 14 and 22 — at least two busloads full of youthful energy. In this case, the bustling exuberance was paired with focused dedication, discipline, technical proficiency and — perhaps most memorable — with a kind of thoughtful musicality that proved far more mature than the average age of the players would have one assume.

The overall teamwork was just as impressive as the individual abilities: Here was a really tight and ‘together’ ensemble (tautology intended) acting as one in its engagement with a particularly complex musical score. The group certainly did not execute the work, nor did they offer a mere interpretation. Instead, they surrendered themselves fully to the process and extreme situations that the work presents and traverses, lived and worked their way through it, clearly risking everything and obviously enjoying every moment of it.

Such a style of music-making can only be achieved through the kind of broadly comprehensive training for which Zander’s workshops are famed. Not limited to musical matters, they may well be considered to be initiation schools, in the sense that all external matters (the necessary technical drill, as well as the broader exposure to historical and cultural questions) primarily aim to foster the personal growth and inner strength of the participants, thereby laying the very foundation for individual, authentic and meaningful musical expression. 

The concert showcased a cohort of performers that had evidently gone through this process to such an extent that they were able to integrate Mahler’s super-romanticist method of grappling with life’s big questions into their own contemporary artistry. 

The symphony ceased to be the intimidating yardstick, against which only the very best can be measured. Instead, it became an energising springboard taken in a stride on the way to further goals. 

What we witnessed was the outcome of education at its best — concurrently imparting worthwhile values and traditions and (in the very same process) inspiring a young generation of musicians to become autonomously responsible and equipping them to take on future challenges. This is an educational model worth emulating. Considering the lack of perspective for so many young learners in this country, I feel that I should shout out and repeat the last sentence many more times.

The Mahler factor

Mahler — very much like Wagner — is a composer that listeners either love or hate, with very few being indifferent. Arguably both composers’ style of expression is so personally emotional that the only possible response can either be total devotion or total rejection. And in both cases, the emotional intensity directly reflects in large numbers of instrumental forces, which as a factor on its own can either spell logistical and artistic disaster or monumentally thrilling flamboyance. In both cases heightened levels of entertainment are guaranteed.

Needless to say, the BPYO took all challenges of large numbers and off-stage players in a stride. A section of 10 French horns is a spectacular sight in its own right. But if such a section moreover plays as one with warmth and balanced blend, even on a fortissimo level, magical moments of deeply stirring and rare beauty emerge. And if the finale — which amasses chorus, soloists, the tutti orchestra plus an organ — not only raises the roof but, even more impressively, comes to a meaningfully controlled ending, a standing ovation is the only possible continuation of the mutual experience into which everyone present had long since been drawn. So yes, those that only came for Mahler were rewarded amply, probably far beyond their expectations.

The history (and story) factor

Being a public speaker just as much as a conductor, Mr Zander also took to the microphone before and after the performance. Talking is usually frowned upon in classical concerts and it can, in fact, sometimes be rather awkward, patronising or simply just meaningless. But in this case, several important things actually had to be said. 

Before the performance, Zander shared the personal account of a meeting that he had with Nelson Mandela in 1997, during which he promised Madiba that “one day I will bring my youth orchestra to perform in South Africa”. 

While he never forgot the pledge, he did not anticipate then that it would take such a long time, before it could be honoured. Considering the extreme challenges of facilitating a concert tour with over a hundred musicians and the same number of fragile and valuable instruments, this is perhaps not surprising. And noting Madiba’s prison term, it may not even be surprising that it would take exactly 26 years before the vow could be fulfilled.

But regardless of numerological conjectures, this little bit of contextual background unexpectedly revealed the BPYO’s presence and performances in South Africa to be a kind of historical event: yet another gift owed to the ever-inspirational Nelson Mandela and proof of the deep and lasting impression that his liberating and reconciliatory style of leadership has made on so many protagonists throughout the world.

The South African factor

The other story that Zander shared was that about the previous Mahler performance a few days earlier in Soweto’s Regina Mundi Church. During the final section of the symphony, the power went off, leaving everybody in the dark and for a moment threatening to derail the performance. However, not only playing from the heart but also being able to play by heart, the orchestra just continued and managed to complete the work — conquering Eskom’s ‘de-lighting’ regiment in a most delightful manner and for that reason obviously earning the most enthusiastic applause ever. 

Which led Zander to reflect on the young American musician’s experience of South Africa and its people. Contrary to the sentiment many locals might currently have, here was a most positive report: “They are having the time of their lives!”

Given that the BPYO has toured extensively and performed on many of the world’s most renowned concert stages, the observation that “nowhere else in the world have we received such warm, spontaneous and authentic audience responses” is important to note. From the perspective that musicking (to use Christopher Small’s insightful term) is not only a matter of making music but just as much of receiving it, South Africa time and again turns out to be one of the more interesting musical places in the world.

Prompted by the very gratifying rapport he and his fellow musicians had experienced throughout their tour, Zander’s assessment of “You are living in one of the most beautiful and special countries” rang true — even taking all evidence to the contrary into account. And so did the addition “You might have just forgotten this a little bit recently…”

In its succinctness, this final ‘sentence’ came over as shockingly fitting analysis of South Africa’s current political (economic, cultural, environmental, etc.) situation. There is no denying that the country has — over the last two decades or so — gradually been slipping into ever-increasing disarray. Confronted with seemingly insurmountable crises on almost every front, many South Africans — perhaps even the majority of us — have been forced to live in a kind of survival mode. With hardly any perspective of positive change this has, for many and certainly for me, by now become the permanent state of affairs. 

This then is the phase where one easily loses hope, as it has proven foolish to hope, and where one subsequently begins to forget that things could actually be otherwise. (Instead of contributing to a caring society, one gets coerced into building higher walls oneself. Instead of calling out wastefulness, one simply shrugs a shoulder and goes with the unsustainable flow. Instead of fighting for fairness and equality, one learns not to get caught out on one’s own advantages. The list could be extended ad infinitum.)

Further down the vicious circle, this amnesic phase leads to full paralysis: the options of ever reaching one’s potential fade away, any remaining visions get reduced to utopian daydreams and the chances of slipping through the safety nets of families, friends or social institutions increase exponentially. Sadly, I think, this is where many of us are.

The only thing that can stop this downward spiral is a nerve-hitting wake-up call of the kind that will concurrently alert, energise and guide one into effective action. There are some signs that the unprecedented levels of recent rolling blackouts might have finally been such a call, having at least kicked some sectors of civic society and businesses out of their hitherto fatefully fatalistic slumbers. However, it remains to be seen whether the justifiable consternation will lead to more than just naming and shaming and actually getting a real grip on reversing the slippage.

Pondering this point the musical performance seemed to gain a symbolic quality. 

Conventional wisdom usually places the final responsibility for societal and political improvements on a nation’s legislative, judicial and executive prowess, thereby marginalising or even fully ignoring the advantageous effect of cultural activities. I wish to make a case for the political necessity of prioritising broad artistic exposure to a nation’s populace, especially to its young generation.

The argument can briefly be summarised as follows: There are no shortcuts in art. There can be no faking of results. What you do always shows. And what you wish to show very much depends on actually doing what is required. Hence true artistry tolerates no pretence, corruption, fibbing — not for any moral or authoritarian reasons but simply due to the very nature of art, being a realm that no external scaffolding, no institutions or regulations can uphold, but that will only flourish if people give their very best: their attention, focus, mindfulness, love and their individual gifts, i.e. their abilities worth giving. (Note that in this context it is not necessary to speak of talents and even less so of exceptional aptitudes.) What better way to curb all these damaging shortcuts that so many public servants do than point the youth towards far more rewarding options?

Exposure to and participation in artistic activity is the only way of instilling Culture and culture — the capitalised spelling referring to historical values, traditions, ideas and achievements, but the ‘small’ or everyday culture of course being just as important, as a way of everyday living in an ethical, responsible and sustainable manner. 

There is no better place to live than in a country with thriving cultures and Cultures. South Africa could be such a place. No political party will get us there. If we want such a country, we will have to claim it ourselves. Perhaps the ultimate purpose of all artistic activity is that of preparing for the ultimate cultural challenge: that of adjusting to an ecology of liveable spaces for a sustainably fruitful coexistence of all living beings. We are doomed if we don’t accept the challenge and we can have a lot of fun if we take it on. I believe that it would be worth a concerted attempt to prioritise and instrumentalise art and art education as a deliberate nation-building venture. What else could we be waiting for?

Dear Mr Zander and BPYO: Thank you for your gently stated but massively underscored wake-up call, reminding us of our nation’s exceptional legacy, our people’s unique qualities, our forgone potential, and for encouraging us to claim all of it back. And thank you, for not only reminding us that this needs to be done, but for verifying that it can be done and for actually demonstrating how it can be done! And because of all of that – thank you for the music! DM

The final destination of the BPYO’s current tour is Makhanda where the orchestra participates in the National Arts Festival with performances on 24 June. 

Hans Huyssen is a composer, cellist, conductor and music teacher with a special love for early European Baroque music, rare traditions of indigenous South African music, as well as contemporary music. He was recipient of the Helgaard Steyn Award, South Africa’s most prestigious composition prize in 2010. 


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Hugh Tyrrell says:

    Thank you Hans. So refreshing . We live in a society bombarded by negative media, which is partly their business model, but also necessary to shine light on wrong-doings. Inspiring stories like these (not ‘sunshine journalism’) are so useful, pointing us to artful ways to take our country back.

  • Roy Haines says:

    I was fortunate enough to attend Tuesday’s concert at the CT City Hall and I echo the writer’s sentiments. It was a vigourous and youthfull but also superb performance of this wonderful uplifting symphony and it certainly raised the roof of the concert hall. What was especially satisfying was the excellent performance of the Soweto choir and soloists. This event certainly gives one hope for the future.

    • Douglas Walters says:

      I was present at the concert in the Guy Butler Theatre as a key item on the National Arts Festival programme in Makhanda on Friday 23. Beethoven’s Fifth, Strauss and a bonus finale ; Elgar’s “Nimrod.” I have attended many concerts there but I have never experienced anything like the ovation and outpouring of appreciation given by the audience to Mr Zander and the Orchestra. Thank you Hans for your comments.

  • Shirley Grindley says:

    The concert by the Boston Youth Orchestra at the Guy Butler Hall, on Saturday evening marked the opening of the National Arts Festival, and what a thrilling performance it was. The concert opened with Beethoven’s rousing 5th symphony, followed by a sublime piece by Strauss. The delightful, informal and informative introductory talks, given by the conductor, Benjamin Zander, before each piece added to our understanding of the composer and the music. Zander is an extraordinarily talented conductor and a wise and humble man who inspired his young musicians to play, not only with technical brilliance but also with their whole hearts. It was a musical experience very different to most other concerts, and the audience responded with standing ovations . My thanks to the Festival planners for bringing these remarkable musicians to play for us, and warmest thanks and gratitude to the Boston Youth Orchestra and Benjamin Zander for this inspiring and wonderful evening of music. Please come back to South Africa again.

  • Rosemary Nalden says:

    Admirably expressed, but I wonder whether this massive enthusiasm for a visiting youth orchestra and its charismatic conductor will now become channelled into support for local orchestras and ensembles, many of which inject their performances with equal musical integrity and excitement? The majority of the music-supporting population of Pretoria for example never bothers to attend a Buskaid concert. We’ve played for audiences in Pretoria of 25, 30, and once, 6. Whereas the recent Boston Pretoria concert was brimful of people we never seem to see at local performances. Unless this support for local talent is forthcoming, with generosity and an open heart, nation-building through music is dead in the water.

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