To orchestra or not to orchestra? The Cape Town question
- Louis Heyneman
- 20 Jan 2015 12:46 (South Africa)
A hundred years ago, when recorded sound was still a curiosity, the colourful sound palette of a symphony orchestra in full force must have been the most impressive demonstration of musical cooperation imaginable. A symphony orchestra was considered a significant beacon of high culture, and every major city in the Western world yearned for its own.
On 28 February 1914, a mere six months before the outbreak of the First World War, Cape Town established its own symphony orchestra, thus beginning a symphonic tradition on the continent of Africa. Through two world wars, economic hardships, the rise and fall of Apartheid and the radical changes of the digital revolution, Cape Town’s orchestra has become a venerable symbol of music-making at the southern tip of Africa.
Orchestral music has always had to compete for attention, particularly given the erratic and unpredictable tastes of popular music. The rise of the mass market for recorded music in the twentieth century led to enormous cultural shifts, but the real revolution came as part of the mass media and global information explosion. Did the very technology that made Enrico Caruso, Maria Callas, Arthur Rubinstein and Herbert von Karajan household names signal the death of live classical music? Perhaps not. But several decades into a fast-changing and radical new digital world, the future of the symphony orchestra is under worldwide threat.
Many believe intelligent machines will take over the role of ‘human’ orchestras, and that by 2050 only a few prestigious top orchestras will survive as relics of a vanishing global culture. Who knows? However, the sustainability of such a labour-intensive intellectual exercise – of seventy highly skilled musicians playing to the beat of a conductor – seems to be the biggest challenge. Even wealthy cities in Europe are questioning the need to fund traditional symphony orchestras. Yet, without public funding, a classical symphony orchestra cannot survive commercially. At the same time, new orchestras are springing up in large Asian cities, particularly in China, where the sophisticated charms of high culture have grabbed the imagination of the elite.
In Cape Town, an increasingly popular international destination with a proud cultural tradition, the challenges of a transforming society play an important part in decisions over whether to fund classical music. The people of Cape Town deserve the luxury of a symphony orchestra, but even after a century of superb musical achievement many people are in two minds about the need for a full-time professional orchestra. The fact is, the sustainability and ‘legitimacy’ of the orchestra has been a point of discussion for decades.
As one scans through newspaper articles over many years, the orchestra’s role as one of the custodians of formal, classical music in the Mother City runs like a golden thread through public cultural debate. Lobbying, bickering and bargaining started even before the 1960s, when it became apparent that the City of Cape Town was reluctant to carry the financial burden. The issue resurfaced in the 1980s, when the orchestra was privatised as the Cape Town Symphony Orchestra (CTSO) and had to rely on funding from individuals and corporate sponsors. In 1986 the city provided the newly privatised orchestra with a ‘golden handshake’ in the form of a R38 million grant-in-aid, payable over ten years. Early in 1997 sustainability was briefly achieved through an amalgamation: the Capab Orchestra, playing mainly for opera and ballet performances at the then Nico Malan Theatre, merged with the Cape Town Symphony Orchestra. The combined orchestra was renamed the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra (CPO).
But the unwieldy structure of a large combined orchestra soon became untenable. At the end of 2000, a smaller, streamlined orchestra was formed, based on a new business plan of using additional session players to supplement the core ensemble. For the past fourteen years, the CPO has expanded its reputation as Africa’s foremost symphony orchestra. In spite of its existence as a hand-to-mouth endeavour, the CPO is more active than ever before, adding an annual international music festival, several recordings with reputable international labels, a concert tour of the United States and appearances in the United Kingdom, Germany and Mauritius to its slate.
The current multifunctional CPO has accepted the challenge of being a chameleon of some sorts, ‘an orchestra for all seasons’, playing for opera and ballet, formal symphony seasons and outdoor and commercial concerts, as well as outreach concerts at schools all over the Western Cape. Long-term planning became a strategic vision in the new millennium, and the transfer of skills to a young generation of musicians and building audiences in all communities became a priority. The orchestra’s vast education and mentor training programme includes two highly successful youth orchestras (founded in 2004), with many players from disadvantaged communities.
The digital revolution has created new consumer markets for music of all kinds. Popular music fads are ephemeral, and today’s ‘viral’ sensation, seen by millions on the internet, will be forgotten in month or two. But the digital world is also an opportunity. The mass media and the internet play an important role in the fusion of musical tastes, and so-called Western classical music is clearly not reserved for the elite any more. Classical music has become part of the international film and television world – a new global palette of sound and vision that is shaping the aesthetic tastes of a modern world.
Marshall McLuhan’s theory of the global village broke down the old ideas of Western versus African versus Asian culture. Today, classical music and soccer balls are equally part of life in Khayelitsha. All of this suggests that the CPO has a bright future in Cape Town. Who says the next Yehudi Menuhin will not come from Khayelitsha?
May the creative spirit of humanity continue its yearning for live music to soothe our souls. Viva la Symphony! Viva! DM
Louis Heyneman is CEO of the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra.