Defend Truth


Ill-considered Mzansi National Philharmonic Orchestra plan hits many sour notes


Rosemary Nalden MBE is the founder of Buskaid and Director of the Buskaid Academy of String Teaching and Performance in Soweto. She studied viola and singing at the Royal College of Music in London, and has played and recorded extensively under conductors such as Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Sir Roger Norrington, Sir Simon Rattle, the late Christopher Hogwood, the late Franz Brüggen and the late Gustav Leonhardt. In 2002 she was awarded an MBE in the Golden Jubilee Queen’s Birthday Honours List in recognition of her work with Buskaid.

It is vitally important that regional music schools and orchestras are fully supported and strengthened long before there is even discussion about a national, centrally based symphony orchestra.  

Many decades ago my father, a distinguished academic who knew a bit about how it felt to be a poverty-stricken musician, took on an entire team of politicians and ambitious, empire-building musicians to fight against their plan to establish a single Conservatorium of Music based in Wellington, New Zealand.

His contention was that it would draw talented students away from the other three major cities, Auckland, Christchurch and Dunedin, thus creating a musical vacuum in these cities. He won the argument — and founded the very first Conservatorium of Music in NZ, based in Auckland.

Other regional conservatoria soon followed. It is of significance that my father grew up in a London orphanage still deeply rooted in Victorian values. He was drafted into the army aged 14 and, by working at night, with the aid of correspondence courses, obtained a double Doctorate of Music (London and Durham) before emigrating to NZ to take up a Junior Lectureship in Music at the University of Auckland.

The UK in those days was not kind to children born out of wedlock, and despite his manifold talents and achievements (he was also a fine harpist, French horn player and conductor) he could not find employment in a British university. We, therefore, emigrated to New Zealand in the late 1940s, where he became a pioneering and ground-breaking music educator. 

Despite the fact that this occurred decades ago, I see many similarities with the current debate raging around the establishment of the new Mzansi National Philharmonic Orchestra (MNPO).

Because of its past, South Africa is still at a pioneering stage where both music education and diversity in professional orchestras are concerned.  Considering how long it takes to produce a violinist of professional capability (between a decade and 12 years) there is still a very long way to go for the less privileged community to catch up.

It is therefore vitally important that regional music schools and orchestras are fully supported and strengthened, long before there is even discussion about a national, centrally based symphony orchestra.  

I would like to comment on the statement that “proper and transparent consultations were embarked upon with various stakeholders”. As the founder and director of Buskaid, one of the country’s most significant producers of young African string players of merit, I was most certainly not consulted. This, despite the fact that my very first “success”, violinist Samson Diamond, who was 12 when I founded Buskaid and began teaching him, and whom Buskaid enabled to study in the UK for five years, is to be one of the associate leaders of the MNPO.

He is not the only Buskaid alumnus to have been chosen to play with the MNPO. The sub-principal bass and sub-principal viola player are both Buskaid alumni. There is at least one other violinist — and in fact, there could be several more quality Buskaid-educated string players — in the ranks of this new venture.

It would seem sensible (if not essential) therefore, to regard Buskaid as a “relevant stakeholder”. It is very possible that I was not consulted because it was assumed, quite rightly, that I would object to such a plan. (In fact, it is my belief that no one even thought of asking for my input.)

And who knows — I might have even requested a slice of this very generous pie to be allocated to Buskaid, on the grounds that you can’t form orchestras out of thin air. As it is, the reason we have survived with such success for the past 25 years must be attributed to the wisdom and foresight of South African corporate sponsors. Funding from government has, with a few exceptions, been sparse and rare.

Reading the MNPO’s statement about its National Cadetship Programme (NCP) gives me great cause for concern. Where will it start its foraging for cadets? It presupposes that someone, somewhere out there, is going to supply it with candidates “entering their junior or senior year of undergraduate study, recent university graduates or pursuing graduate level studies, achieving a minimum overall passing rate of 60%.”  

In the same breath, it states that this programme is open to all South Africans, particularly those from disadvantaged communities. Without the existence of community outreach programmes such as ours, whence will these disadvantaged skilled young players be sourced? (As I have pointed out above, Samson Diamond is the product of Buskaid, a community-based township project.)

And, once identified, will they be lured away from those organisations which, against all odds, have invested time, money, knowledge and skills into their development, leaving the Buskaids of this country without either performers or teachers?

Buskaid’s job-creation programme has been painstakingly built up over the past decade to the point where its players of excellence, all of whom have high-level international performance diplomas, can earn money as performers and teachers at Buskaid and elsewhere while freelancing with local professional orchestras with whose managements Buskaid collaborates very successfully.

As a result, many young Buskaid musicians have far greater earning potential and enjoy multi-faceted and diverse musical careers. But, although the detail around the Cadetship Programme is alarmingly opaque, it would appear that all this is now at risk if those behind the MNPO put their plans into action. Deprive organisations such as Buskaid of its players and teachers, and it won’t take very long for the supply of young musicians from the previously disadvantaged communities of South Africa to have dried up completely. 

We are told that the MNPO’s appearances on the world stage will “strengthen cultural diplomacy by creating world-class orchestral music experiences and touring events nationally and internationally”. The Buskaid Ensemble is still the only orchestra from the African continent to have performed in the Royal Albert Hall for the BBC Proms (2007). The Ensemble has performed in 16 different countries (some, multiple times) in the course of 26 international tours. Most of these tours were funded by South African corporates.

Efforts to persuade government to support the Buskaid Ensemble’s international tours have always been a challenge, and have, more often than not, ended in disappointment. And yet, all of a sudden, at a time when there are murmurings of an impending recession, enough money has been found to fund international tours for a full symphony orchestra: fares, fees, hotels, per diems… the lot!

I spent many decades as a performing orchestral musician, based in London and touring the world. I know quite a lot about what it takes to build an orchestra to international standards: the importance of playing together over many years and bonding cohesively into a musical entity.

I also know how much money is absorbed by touring an orchestra, whose reputation needs to precede it, through, for example, a portfolio of fine recordings, in order to build audiences. Once the novelty effect of this South African National Orchestra wears off, then what?  

British orchestras are renowned for paying lower fees than their counterparts in Europe and the US, and yet… the London Philharmonic Orchestra, for example, pays around a basic £70 (R1,450) to its rank-and-file players for a rehearsal and £140 (R2,900) for a concert. The Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra equivalents are R850 and R950.

Will overseas players flying into South Africa be content with a 60% or so cut in salary? Or, if they are paid competitive overseas equivalents, will their local desk partners not be (very rightly) aggrieved if they are paid a lesser amount? Even R30-million won’t last very long on the basis of paying euro, dollar and sterling equivalents to a full-size symphony orchestra. 

To return to my initial point about regional versus central. The implication behind much of what has been written in defence of this venture is that only the cream of local (and international) musicians will be selected. This suggests that regional orchestras will be left with the dregs, the rejects. 

Apart from the fact that this is beyond insulting for those hard-working and thoroughly capable musicians who were not selected, this still leaves local orchestras wondering how they will be able to present concerts when key players may be off on tour with the MNPO during their concert seasons.

Flag poles, national orchestras… what’s the next vanity project? Isn’t it about time that money on this scale was spent on giving more opportunities to the vast mass of youngsters and children out there who will never ever know how it feels to satisfy their creative urges, be it as musicians, artists, dancers… and in doing so enhance an education system which is desperately in need of a greater emphasis on arts-based education?

Not every child wishes to become an accountant. Though perhaps that is just what’s required right now to balance those very imbalanced government books. DM

Footnote: Buskaid is mainly funded by corporate sponsors and trusts in South Africa, the UK and the US. Around 10% of its funding since it was founded 25 years ago has come from government sources, the Department of Arts and Culture, the National Arts Council, the National Lotteries Commission and Business and Arts South Africa, which is a government/private sector partnership.



Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Carsten Rasch says:

    This minister’s foresight is no longer than his nose is long, and his insight even shorter. He follows an agenda as opaque as the average sewerage works, and is deaf to boot. Nothing, apparently not even the President, can sway this dedicated imbecile from his mission of destroying the arts industries of this country. Keeping him in his job is the same as having a jackal in the henhouse. At some point, you run out of hens. Heckling, booing, sit-in protests and any form of resistance to his hare-brained schemes serve as fuel rather than brakes. With him at the helm, there is only way, and that is down. And then there are the bad things…

  • Jill Richards says:

    Well said, Rosemary Nalden! Community-based music education from a young age is essential.

  • Hermann Funk says:

    I said it before: “Nathi Mthethwa is neither artful nor cultured.

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