RACHMANINOFF's third piano concerto hits my core with a bang, as the 31-year-old Russian Dmitry Shishkin makes the Steinway sing and moan and conjures up seamless and delicate runs.
As his fingers slide over the keys from left to right, I imagine small antelope running across the savannah; a lion roars in the deep bass register ... The audience sighs in wonder, the orchestra is inspired. Three standing ovations follow.
Surrounded by music for two hours, it feels as if the sun is shining on you, deep in the city, but away from her troubles here in the home of the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra (CPO).
“You become addicted to the musical excitement, to the orchestra passionately accompanying the soloist," says Louis Heyneman, the CPO's chief executive officer and artistic director, who has worked heart and soul for the orchestra's survival for the past 23 years.
Two symphony seasons are on the way; the first one starting on 7 September and then again in October.
On 28 September, the upcoming season's concerts (with the usual offering of concertos for cello, piano and violin) will conclude with the Celebration of Africa concert, where composer Mzilikazi Khumalo's monumental oratorio Ushaka Ka Senzangakhona will be performed.
Robert Maxym, who orchestrated this work, will be the conductor. A large choir from Khayelitsha and a praise poet will join the CPO to celebrate Maxym's 75th birthday as well as his lifelong commitment to the promotion of indigenous orchestral music with the performance of this epic work.
Heyneman is already receiving requests from family members to organise buses from the townships for this event. Grandfathers, grandmothers, mothers, fathers – the whole tutti – are eager to attend.
Operalia and Domingo
Operalia, the prestigious annual international competition for opera singers – and certainly the biggest international art spectacle to date in South Africa – takes place at Artscape from 30 October to 5 November.
The iconic tenor Plácido Domingo (82), chairman of the judging panel, will take turns conducting the CPO in the final round. (And I can't help but think back to the concert in 1999, when he was in his prime, and 35,000 frenzied fans at the Union Buildings in Pretoria enthusiastically applauded The Three Tenors, Domingo, José Carreras and the late Luciano Pavarotti.)
This year is the 30th anniversary of the Operalia competition, which 12 years ago made a world star of our very own Pretty Yende, once from eMkhondo (Piet Retief), a small town in Mpumalanga. In 2017, the lyrical tenor Levy Sekgapane, a Free Stater from Maokeng (Kroonstad), was the winner.
The CPO's performances were packed during the past season. Maybe spirited concertgoers who jump to their feet and shout “Bravo!", unlike European audiences, will save concert life in Africa. “That's what makes classical music sexy," Heyneman believes.
This is also what attracts international conductors and soloists to Africa.
“Our people are warm. Here, foreign musicians usually perform for half of or even less than what they earn in Europe," Heyneman says.
The CPO was founded shortly before the First World War, and its success is partly due to the acoustics of the City Hall, which is particularly well suited to symphonic music, accompanied by organ and choirs. “It's an experience that loudspeakers or sound amplifiers cannot imitate," Heyneman says.
It is the only orchestra in South Africa that is surviving financially with 47 permanent members, mainly South African musicians who are sometimes supplemented by professional freelancers.
City Hall has a vibe …
As a regular CPO supporter, my weekly experience extends beyond the quality music experiences. There's an energy – and also the history of the Edwardian City Hall, which was inaugurated in 1905 and built from limestone imported all the way from Bath, England. It makes me proud.
Here, above the entrance to the building's steps, Madiba looked out over the Grand Parade and delivered his first official speech after being released on 11 February 1990.
When I walk past the bronze statue, which is placed exactly where the wise elder stood when he addressed the crowd, one thinks of how far South Africa has progressed, despite all the misery (load-shedding, Phala Phala, you name it). Groups of foreign visitors often pass by and take pictures.
Music fits somewhere in the equilibrium of world peace ... Madiba himself said: “It is music and dancing that make me at peace with the world."
Classical music – opera, ballet and symphony orchestras – is often made out to be elitist.
However, Heyneman wants to create a concert culture that shows classical music is not merely Eurocentric, but a world culture. He knows that Bach and Beethoven are at your fingertips on your mobile phone or laptop in the townships; while kwaito sounds, a mix of township dances, house and rap can just as easily reverberate in Tokyo, London and New York.
The CPO is proud of its empowerment of youth in mentorship programmes, the largest of which are in the townships in and around the Cape.
“The Masidlale grassroots level training programme teaches music skills to children at a primary school level, and has grown into several string ensembles and a music academy offering young people from all communities free training on Saturdays," Heyneman says.
Our own musicians are outstanding
We often hear that the world is a big town, where everyone has access to empowerment.
Our own musicians are outstanding.
The interpretation of Rachmaninoff's second piano concerto by Mike Wang, the petite 16-year-old learner from Paarl Boys High who recently made his debut with the CPO, was confident and sensitive.
Similarly, during the pandemic 18-year-old Jordan Brooks from Kenilworth made his debut performing Sibelius' demanding violin concerto with the CPO. He is now studying violin at the Royal College of Music in London.
“Young musicians' talent has no end," Heyneman remarks.
And then: “The biggest injustice in the past was not giving all young people the opportunity to perform. The musical talent in disadvantaged communities is simply amazing."
It is true that international orchestras have larger audiences and more money and resources. “But we offer the same finish at a fraction of the cost overseas, and with the same excitement and passion."
In my shiny red leather shoes, I attended the operetta The Merry Widow with my parents at the then Nico Malan Theatre (now Artscape), with Leonora Veenemans in the leading role.
At age 57 I still remember: The moment the band and the widow let rip, it was tickets.
♦ VWB ♦
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