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Mzansi National Orchestra an example of orchestra hijacking in its most classical form


Louis Heyneman is Chief Executive Officer and Artistic Director of the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra, CPO.

A large, expensive orchestra that offers concerts once or twice a year with imported conductors and the same randomly chosen players will not sustain the orchestra culture in South Africa.

It has been almost two years since the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture quietly introduced a new national symphony orchestra without proper consultation. The mandate of the Mzansi National Philharmonic Orchestra (MNPO) is to transform the orchestra landscape, but it is already clear that this landscape will soon become a desert.

Read more in Daily Maverick: National orchestra launches amid a contentious concerto of opaqueness and conflicting harmonies

The intention was to empower orchestra players from all communities and to create an orchestra that would represent the entire South Africa. The goal was for everyone to benefit from the orchestra’s concerts, job opportunities, and training. Previously, the department’s budget had been divided among the three major centres but, since 2020, the full budget has been allocated to the new orchestra.

Just before the Covid pandemic, R1-million was granted by the former Minister of Sport, Arts and Culture, Nathi Mthethwa, to produce a business plan. A task force was initially formed but, due to Covid, the activities of the “task force” were curtailed. A half-baked plan was then presented to the department by the convener of the group, without anyone having any input into it.

What has been achieved so far? Apart from two short concert tours that included performances in Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town and Gqeberha, the Mzansi Orchestra has not made a significant difference to orchestral music in South Africa. What it is busy doing, however, is financially suffocating the three excellent, professional orchestras in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Concerns mount over R52-million given to Mzansi National Philharmonic Orchestra

Last week’s three concerts in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Gqeberha were received enthusiastically, and the players and audiences provided favourable comments on social media.

But nobody is talking about the elephant in the room. One swallow does not make a summer: the professional orchestras in South Africa that have been the backbone of the South African orchestral tradition for decades will no longer be sustainable as orchestras. And who will work hard for 15 years to master an orchestral instrument if one can only play in a performance a few times a year?

In Cape Town, the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra (CPO) performs up to 120 times a year. It is a multi-functional orchestra for symphony concerts, opera, ballet, and other genres. With the same budget, the Mzansi Orchestra serves a few cities, but only once a year.

Sporadic concerts with players randomly chosen without auditions will not maintain the quality of orchestral playing at an international standard. A year ago, the MNPO gave its first performance at Wits’ Centenary Celebration. In December of last year, the first concert tour was offered — Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Johannesburg, Durban, and Cape Town with the renowned conductor Marin Alsop on the podium.

In its first year of existence, almost R54-million was allocated to the new entity, and in the current fiscal year, the normal budget is about R34-million.

Now, eight months later, the MNPO embarked on its second tour of three concerts. This time, it was Mahler’s well-known Fifth Symphony in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Gqeberha.

The travelling orchestra, mostly comprised of professional musicians in Johannesburg, Durban and a group of South Africans living and working abroad, is supposed to usher in a new era in orchestral music, according to the excessive propaganda paid for with taxpayer money in newspapers and on social media.

Where is the youth benefit?

The promised empowerment of young, local musicians has yielded few results so far. A few showcase concerts per year do not change the orchestral landscape. An orchestra that only plays together a few times cannot transfer skills to young players for the rest of the year.

Established orchestras in all major centres have been training young players and providing opportunities to gain experience in orchestral playing for decades. The Mzansi Orchestra sidesteps its educational task by disbursing funds to universities without transparency and allocating overseas study funds to a few students without transparency.

The education of classical musicians is primarily the responsibility of tertiary institutions. However, universities already receive subsidies from the Department of Higher Education, Science and Innovation for that purpose.

Practical training through youth orchestras, workshops, and experience in orchestral playing — as well as job opportunities — are the domain of practising orchestras and ensembles, as well as non-profit organisations like the Miagi Orchestra, Buskaid, the South African Youth Orchestra, and many other smaller groups that have been doing good work for years to empower young musicians.

Unsustainable costs

The CEO of the Mzansi Orchestra and his three selected committee members, who do not represent the orchestra industry, hold the future of the country’s orchestras in their hands without subjecting a long-term operational plan or the actual costs of concerts and additional travel and accommodation to public scrutiny.

The Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra, the only remaining South African orchestra that performs throughout the year and does not consist of rotating freelance musicians, was approached for collaboration last year. Several requests since June 2022 for insight into the Mzansi Orchestra’s business plan and budgets have been unsuccessful.

As a partner, the CPO wanted to understand more about the operational budget than just the ideals and objectives that are widely spread in the media and glossy brochures. When taxpayer money is used, a transparent and realistic business plan should be shared with the entire industry. The CPO was not willing to be part of undemocratic manipulation and rejected on moral grounds the small donation offered.

The excessive advertising, travel, and accommodation within South Africa, the foreign players, and an expensive conductor to lend stature to the orchestra make each concert at least three times more expensive. Spending the greater part of a budget meant for music on infrastructure, promotion, travel and accommodation makes the entire project unsustainable.

So far, the Mzansi NPO is stumbling aimlessly with state funds. The lack of national representation and realistic transformation is just one aspect of a national ensemble that doesn’t make sense. The so-called “Springbok Team” of orchestras is a farce.

I am happy for the players who do get a chance to perform in the concerts. They deserve every opportunity to earn an income. However, the system is corrupt, unfair, and there is no accountability for mismanagement. This is orchestra hijacking in its most classical form!

And the hijacking undermines all the other orchestras. Taking away financial security from a region at a time when there are practically no corporate sponsorships available means only one thing: a desert in cities with good orchestras.

A large, expensive orchestra that offers concerts once or twice a year with imported conductors and the same randomly chosen players will not sustain the orchestra culture in South Africa. If the same group of musicians, selected on merit, does not play together regularly enough to maintain the standard of orchestral music at an international level, mediocrity and permanent job losses will ensue.

This ultimately leads to an apathetic audience, and the loyal group of music lovers who support the current orchestra culture will lose interest.

There are so many talented young musicians who dream of playing full-time in one of the excellent orchestras in South Africa someday. Their chances are becoming fewer and fewer. The Mzansi National Orchestra is destroying the orchestra culture in South Africa. All metropolitan areas will lose their functioning quality orchestras. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • alcamp1970 says:

    Fully agree with these sentiments. Well written article.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

    Welcome to South Africa, where useless is the dream.

    • Gretha Erasmus says:

      I agree, rage rage against the dying of the light..
      the dream is worth fighting for, with a vote, with a comment to coworkers, with a comment on a news platform, with being part of citizen education and voter education groups.

  • Anne Felgate says:

    Excellent article
    ANC doing its best to ruin what works
    If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it
    Unless you want to get your hands on the money, of course

  • Hermann Funk says:

    Why must these idiots destroy what works? Useless like most other ministries.

  • Gretha Erasmus says:

    Good article highlighting an issue many of us are completely unaware of.
    Once again a half thought out idea, costing an inordinate amount of money for the benefit of the very few.

  • Dave Gould says:

    Is this true that these people running the Mzansi orchestra refuse to let the public see what they are spending our money on. If so, this is disgusting but not surprising, our wonderful ANC are able to reach their crooked tentacles into every sphere, even the arts.

  • David Pennington says:

    Absolutely anything that they touch…..

  • Andrew Johnson says:

    From Post Office, to Eskom and Transnet and now Classical music. The incompetent ANC jackals are at it again.

  • Bernard Kruger says:

    Well said! The demise and misappropriation of orchestra funding (especially in Durban and Johannesburg) is an ongoing battle for decades already. The Mzansi orchestra will, I fear, be the final nail in the coffin. As a music educator, it is a poor state of affairs when one cannot in good conscience encourage any talented music students to pursue a career as a classical musician anymore. This time I don’t believe the blame lies with the government or the ANC, but rather with the group of individuals in charge of the JPO and KZNPO.

    • Rosemary Nalden says:

      Well said! Where will our graduates from Buskaid play in the next decade? I expressed many of Louis’ sentiments in a DM article last year. No ad hoc orchestra meeting a couple of times a year will ever become a homogenised group of musicians whose sum is greater than its parts. And that is what makes great orchestras. People who play together regularly over a long period of time, who create and are known for a particular sound and style: that’s how it should be. Importing a few internationally recognised ex pat South African instrumentalists is not the answer to creating a great ‘National’ Orchestra. But the worst aspect of all of this is the huge cost of their flights, hotels, fees etc – money which is needed for the training of young musicians and the ongoing financial health of local professional orchestras. The complete lack of transparency is of grave concern. Scholarships for overseas study have been awarded. . When did the auditions for these scholarships take place? Were they advertised? If so, where and when? Lastly – I watched the CTSO promotional video a couple of days ago. It’s utterly amazing and a fine example of how an orchestra can sound when its musicians work regularly together. Which brings me full circle!

  • Peter Wanliss says:

    The Mzanzi Orchestra is a rehashed Apartheid idea, mooted in Parliament in 1975, or was it 1976, when it was suggested that instead of having provincial orchestras, the country should have, (exactly like this, I heard it myself) ” . . . een groot, sterk orkes.” It has taken nearly 50 years and an ANC government to get this Nat idea off the ground, sort of.

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