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Learning To Listen (A week with the KZNPO)

By May 26, 2008No Comments

To the unseasoned classical concert attendee””such as myself””spectating a Symphony concert for the first time can be a pretty intimidating experience. At a Thursday evening concert’ held at the Durban City Hall in February (part of the Kwa-Zulu Natal Philharmonic Orchestra’s (KZNPO) World Symphony Summer Series) I was to learn the hard way””arriving in the somewhat inappropriate attire of slops, jeans and a t-shirt and then proceeding to burst into applause during the performance at the most inopportune moments (after and never between the movements-a disapproving audience member is quick to inform me.)
In this current age of technological razzle-dazzle and selective hearing– the art of sitting and listening has fast become an antiquated art form. Admittedly the ability to shut out the relentless clamour of the outside world and hone one’s over -stimulated senses on bunch of musicians and their outer worldly instruments, is not something that comes easily to most of us.
Furthermore without prior knowledge of the daunting protocol– a rigid rule-book presumably dreamt up by a somber and humourless bunch of 16th century Austrians””it seems my classical musical pretensions are getting the better of me. So much so that by half time, I’m hiding out in the men’s room ”“terrified that the classical music fundis lingering in the overly fragrant foyer, might attempt to embroil me their conversation’s over how ‘memorable’ that Shostakovich (who the hell is that?)Piano concerto was, or how ‘odious’ the interpretation of last weeks Mozart Symphony happened to be.
Still by the second half I’m determined to discover how–in a nation where cultural pastimes of the colonial sort have long been relinquished to apartheid history books””a fully functioning and funded Orchestra are tuning up their instruments in preparation to delight (a mostly elderly white audience)with their interpretation of a Mendelssohn’s overture.
A few months later I visit the Orchestra amidst preparations for their up and coming Winter Symphony Series (The KZNPO Symphony Series comes in two annual instalments: with both ”˜summer’ and ”˜winter’ seasons).
How the KZNPO (founded in 1983) has managed to remain a permanent fixture on the Durban Cultural calendar for the past twenty-five years, I discover comes down to the more recent commitment of the orchestras CEO and artistic director- Bongani Thembe.
Thembe 45, a Durbanite and Julliard Music School Graduate, has headed up the orchestra since 1994 and, subsequently raised over R100 million to ensure its ongoing survival.
“I came into this organization during the birth of South Africa’s democracy” he explains over a cup of coffee at the Orchestra’s Acutt Street headquarters. “I think a lot of people feared I would end all the Symphony concerts and demand that the orchestra only ever play to people in the townships. The opposite is true” he says, explaining how combined with a series of long term developmental programs –the World Symphony Series was launched in 1996 featuring a celebrated list of top local and international talent.
Visiting some of the Orchestras musicians during their ”˜Winter Season’ rehearsal break, I’m confronted with a dizzying profusion of dialects and accents”“so much so that it feels as if I might have stumbled into a United Nations tea party. I soon learn that out of the KZNPO’s seventy odd musicians: a large portion hail from over twenty five nationalities. Such a far- flung diversity is however one which Orchestra Manager Alasdair Muir 40, claims to be more of a necessity then an ideal.
“Our priority is to increase the number of South African musicians and this year we have the largest quota of South Africans.” He says “, still it’s a challenge, given that classical music is not a popular thing amongst the black communities. Musician’s have to have at least seven years of tutoring and training before they are able to play with a professional orchestra such as ours.”
To rectify this, a large portion of the orchestra’s funding and time is channeled into various educational and developmental outreach programs– including the KZNPO’s National Cadetship Program, which enables promising young musicians to train with mentors and meet the requirements for a professional orchestra career. ‘
“There’s a perception that we are just a Thursday night orchestra” confirms Jennifer Cox– 40, a lanky blonde cellist recruit from the United States “But this couldn’t be further from the truth. We are frequently bundling into vehicles and heading out into communities to either perform or conduct workshops.”
Cox recently relocated, with her pooch and cello-case (the type that could quite easily be used to smuggle small personages in and out of the country),from Pittsburgh to Durban to fulfill a two- year contract with the KZNPO.
“I knew nothing about this city before I came here” she confesses “, just that it was on the Indian ocean– which was what convinced me. I was living in an all -American town before this, so I must admit the, humidity, crime and lack of Starbuck’s takes some getting used to.”
Similarly, for principal cellist– Boris Kerimov, 45 and his family, arriving in Durban, nine years ago from the Siberian city of Novosbirsk–with barely a syllable of English between them– must have come as something as a cultural shock to the thawing Siberian system.
“I had never heard of Durban” Kerimov intones in his softly nuanced English. “But after Russia, it felt as if we arrive in paradise. We came here because Russia was experiencing a difficult economic time .My family and I, wanted very much to see the world and joining the KZNPO seemed to be the best way to do that.”
With orchestras internationally being the first to face the funding gauntlet– it’s ironic that the city of Durban now plays haven to the accomplished hoards of classical refugees. And while recruiting and managing this fleet of world-class muso’s might be a challenge””try convincing the notoriously apathetic Durban audiences to come out and hear them play.
Such a task is left up to Tania Smith (40), the KZNPO’S marketing and sales co-ordinator whose job it is to boost the ailing subscription base while ensnaring the interest of up and coming generations. Not so easy when considering the current trends and tastes she’s up against– tastes that mostly range from synthesized pop princesses to screaming Neanderthal’s.
“We’re aware that our loyal subscribers won’t be around forever.” she says some-what euphemistically,” and for this reason, it’s important that we appeal, not only too the younger generations but to a greater cross- section of the community.”
So how then, does one begin to tempt the ‘classically challenged’ to part with their hard earned cash (anything from a student price of R41 up to R173 for the best seat in the house) and spend a few hours out of their evening in the company of er”¦.Brahms? For a start, Smith mentions playing down the rigid traditionalism associated with attending concert’s–that while slops and t- shirts are not necessarily encouraged (point taken)””they will be tolerated. Safety is also another priority– with marshals now ushering audience members from parking lots to the safety of the City- hall doorstep.
“The Black and Indian audiences are very much a market we are trying to grow” she adds, “In our choral concerts we find the black compliment of our audience grows, as do our Indian audiences whenever an Eastern soloist or instrument is included. We are a South African orchestra and with that arises the responsibility to adapt and change with the times.”
Thembe couldn’t agree more, constantly re-enforcing his motto: that the KZNPO remains committed to breaking down the preconceived notions of what an Orchestra should be. Of course this means frequently juggling the commercially viable with artistically cutting edge–with attendance predictably peaking over events such as the annual Botanic Gardens Mothers Day concert. It seems for most suburbanites– sipping chardonnay’s on a picnic blanket while humming along to their favorite Andrew Lloyd-Webber ditties, is about as ‘classically adventurous’ as they’re ever going to get.
“The mentality” confesses Muir “, has always been, that if we do the more commercial stuff, the audiences will consider trying the more serious stuff, but sadly this is not always the case. More and more I think it’s a visual thing– People in the electronic age are very different from the old dude that used to sit around listening to his gramophone.”
Yet, I mention how surprised I was to learn how visual the Symphony Concerts really are. How when sitting in the City Hall gallery, there is plenty of spectacle to be found in observing this hodgepodge of musicians who ”“under the baton of their zealous conductor– band together to tempt the most improbable of sounds from their instruments.
Musicians– who just as pet owner’s are said to resemble their animals- seem to mostly bare an uncanny likeness to their instruments. Whether it’s the tyrannical Eastern bloc percussionist, storming the building with his kettle-drums or an imperious French man puffing frantically from behind his tangled arsenary of brass and steel.
Theirs is of course the thrill of observing the various musical factions””sparring and flirting, before uniting in a near orgasmic tidal-wave of sound. It’s an experience akin to being flung into a vigorous bout of love making–with all the ensuing fore-play, climax and post-coital catharsis– which goes along way in explaining, why come Thursday night, so many pensioners are queuing around the block to get their weekly fix.
And while I still can’t tell my Mendelssohn from my Mozart nor Beethoven from Brahms’s, this seems to matter less and less. Once I had gotten over my initial fears (and fou pa’s) and began to attend more regularly ”“ I soon discovered that all that is really required of the participant is to shut off, shut up and listen. With this in mind the Symphony concerts became my perfect weekly antidote. The type of unrivalled optimism I suppose that comes with watching a motley cross section of humanity””co-operating so seamlessly with one another.
While watching the KZNPO in full symphonic flight, I’ve found myself falling prone to wild bouts of fantasising– imagining what would happen if such team-work were implemented into the squabbling stalls of Parliament. Picture it: a group of over fifty politicians, contributing selflessly to make a single harmonious sound””now there’s a Symphony I’d gladly don my tux for!
The Kwa-Zulu Natal Philharmonic Orchestra’s World Symphony Winter Season, takes place at the Durban City Hall on Thursday nights at 7:30 pm- until the 10th of July


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