Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra's summer season will make your soul sing

Bongani Tembe, chief executive of the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra
Bongani Tembe, chief executive of the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra

It was once a dejected, mediocre-sounding bunch whose players were owed R5 million in fees, but the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra (JPO) is ready to kick off its Summer Season next week.

There won’t be any Beyoncé, but superstars of the classical music universe will be in the city in the next four weeks, including Russian-American pianist Olga Kern, Brazilian conductor Debora Waldman and German violinist Alexander Gilman.

But arguably the most highly anticipated talent on the bill is home grown: The Gauteng Choristers will perform Mozart’s iconic Requiem, conducted by German-born conductor Bernhard Gueller.

It is difficult to explain to those who aren’t aficionados of Western art music just what a big deal this is for the city’s music lovers, who have been starved of high-quality symphony concerts since the orchestra fell on hard times.

But why should anybody else be interested? And of what relevance is a work like the Requiem, written around 1791, to South Africans today?

The orchestra’s chief executive, Bongani Tembe, has an idea.

“It’s just such a great piece of music. It is relevant because great music is great music and people must enjoy all sorts of music. And there is a reason this music has lasted hundreds of years,” he says.

“But at the same time, we must do music that reflects our heritage. Hence we do things like Ushaka Ka Senzangakhona by Mzilikazi Khumalo and works by Bongani Ndodana-Breen, and that’s also part of our vision.”

Tembe also heads the KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestra in Durban and took the helm at Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra in 2015, after it was placed in business rescue in 2012, leaving its musicians unpaid. Its symphony concerts ground to a halt.

The City of Johannesburg sponsored the JPO with R31 million over three years and other money was donated by the Oppenheimer Family Trust and the Rupert family.

Tembe isn’t fazed by jokes about white monopoly capital.

“In Durban people often said to me, ‘Why are you not doing African music?’ I said because somebody has got to compose it first. We don’t play things out of the air,” he says.

“We have talented African composers but they don’t know how to compose for the orchestra.”

But the biggest challenge is audiences.

The concerts, held on Wednesday and Thursday evenings at the Linder Auditorium on Wits University’s education campus, are attended by an army of older, white aficionados.

Tembe is trying to bring in younger audiences of all races with a number of measures, including introducing concerts on Saturdays for those who cannot get out during the week; big-name soloists playing popular repertoire that people would want to hear performed live; and focusing on excellence – no mediocrity is tolerated.

Excellence has been a particular focus; the conductors selected to lead the orchestra are fastidious and demanding.

It’s a big ask for a part-time orchestra, whose members have to teach and hold down other jobs to survive.

“But they are so highly motivated and that is combined with great conductors and soloists,” he says.

Audiences will soon be able to see themselves represented on the stage.

The JPO is slowly being transformed, with many African players in the strings section, but other sections require far more black players.

Although women soloists are far from unusual on symphonic stages, women conductors are.

Tembe has brought Waldman out to conduct a programme at the end of the month that features Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite, Maurice Ravel’s piano concerto in G major and Dvorak’s Symphony Number 8.

“The JPO is doing exceedingly well.

“And you are going to see the level of artists we’re bringing now more and more,” Tembe says.

“The issue is to grow the audience; we need new people.

“You are also going to see us doing more concerts in more communities and in different settings, where people can come with their families and bring their picnic baskets and enjoy music.

“We need to go out more and change the formula.

“I find the JPO very enthusiastic and they are very excited. It’s really a pleasure to lead them.” 

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