Building bridges with classical music

[Image]Some South African choirs, like the
Soweto Gospel Choir pictured here, have
gone on to garner international acclaim.
(Image: Baxter Theatre)

[Image]Composer Mokale Koapeng has worked
for many years to bridge the gap between
different genres of music.
(Image: JIMP)

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Chris Thurman

Classical music is thriving in South Africa, as this year’s Johannesburg International Mozart Festival (JIMF) showed.

The 2011 event opened with a double-bill symphony concert on 27 January – the date, as artistic director Florian Uhlig reminded the audience in his welcome address, of the famous Bavarian’s birthday.

A full house at the Linder Auditorium, the city’s foremost classical music venue, was treated not only to a performance of Mozart’s “Requiem” but also to the world premiere of South African Mokale Koapeng’s “Dipesalema Tsa Dafita” (Psalms of David).

Koapeng was appointed as the composer-in-residence for this year’s festival and his “Dipesalema” was specially commissioned for the event.

Apart from Mozart, he shared the programme with a host of other revered names: Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Rossini, Schubert, Liszt, Sibelius, and more.

Of course, this raises the question, why Mozart? Why not a Bach festival, or a Brahms festival, or a Haydn festival?

The simple answer is that the JIMF was established in 2006 to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth. But the success of the festival in recent years has been such that, in some ways, Mozart seems to stand as a metonym for the broad spectrum of classical music.

Making classical music more accessible

When I put this to festival organiser and conductor Richard Cock, he concurred but added: “We want to widen the scope of audience experiences of classical music and to contextualise its performance. Mozart was, in his time, a moderniser; he sought to make music more accessible and contemporary.”

These words could equally describe Cock himself. He has, for some decades now, been a fervent promoter and populariser of classical music in all its forms – orchestral and choral, from symphonies to variety shows. There are still those who like to distinguish between what might be described as the light music typically performed at popular concerts and the serious works more to the taste of classical music fundis and purists.

But Cock says that he experiences a “healthy tension” between the two: “I consider it one of my jobs to educate the public in a variety of musical forms. So I’m happy to draw people in through the appeal of more well-known pieces and then to introduce other work. Concert-goers trust me to do that.”

Indeed, Cock has built up this trust over many years through events held in each of the country’s major cities, such as Starlight Classics and Last Night of the Proms, along with gala concerts at the National Arts Festival and elsewhere.

“When I returned to South Africa from England in 1980, I found that classical music was quite a stuffy affair. Certainly, attitudes have changed since then – this is also linked to general societal change – and I have been happy to be part of that process.”

When I spoke to Koapeng after the opening night performance of his selection of psalms, he told me that he and Cock have been working together for so long he’s happy not to intervene in the conductor’s interpretation of his work; in fact, he said, he only attended one rehearsal to help the German-speaking members of the Schleswig-Holstein Festival Choir with their pronunciation in Sesotho.

“The curious thing is that this is actually no different to what I would have to do with local choristers. Because of the dominance of Nguni languages (mainly isiZulu and isiXhosa) in this country, most South Africans find Sesotho, along with say Sepedi and Setswana, quite challenging.”

Finding inspiration in music

The great joy of music, however, is that it can transcend linguistic divisions. The theme of the 2011 JIMF was On Wings of Song and each concert focused specifically on vocal music, so the festival programme provided the words of each song in the original language and in English translation.

Even without this aid, however, audience members found that knowledge of Sesotho – or German, or French, or Latin for that matter – was no prerequisite to finding inspiration in the alternating joys and sorrows of these works.

Still, there is no doubt that classical music in South Africa has been affected by the country’s ongoing racial and cultural divisions. Cock’s popularising effort is one thing but, as Koapeng pointed out in a recent interview, correcting misperceptions that “classical music is not for black people” is another challenge altogether.

Koapeng’s comments caused some controversy and invoked a strong response from Shadrack Bokaba, managing director of the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra, which Koapeng had criticised for “mis-educating blacks” about the “significant contributions to (Western) classical music” made by black people worldwide.

Education is close to Koapeng’s heart, and it’s clear that he practices what he preaches; among his former students are prominent young musicians such as Selaelo Selota, Kgaogelo Mailula and Arthur Mafokate.

He has also suggested that, while local orchestras should include more works by black composers, this is only a start: “Programming alone won’t change audience demographics.”

What is also needed is positive interaction between different music communities – for instance, Koapeng notes, “Some of my jazz brothers let the behaviour of the classical establishment cloud their view of the music.”

Musical pioneer

It is fair to say that Koapeng himself has pioneered collaborations between musicians of different cultural backgrounds as well as different musical genres. He has composed and conducted widely in the field of African choral music but is equally comfortable in the conventional classical field. He is particularly proud of his collaboration with British vocal group I Fagiolini on the Simunye (“We are one”) album, which features SOuth African indigenous music and Western music on a equal footing.

And when he speaks of his “jazz brothers”, he does not do so lightly; he founded the Soweto Youth Jazz Orchestra.

Koapeng was born in Soweto and was 13 years old at the time of the student uprising in the township in June 1976. Revisiting his memories of this iconic but turbulent period in our country’s history, Koapeng created “Cantus in Memoria ’76” (Song in Memory of ’76). The piece, which incorporates poems by Don Mattera and Lesego Rampolokeng, was performed in 2006 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the uprising.

It’s clear that, though Koapeng is modest and affable in conversation, there is a strong social conscience – perhaps one could even call it a political conviction – behind his work.

What, then, does the future hold for the JIMF, for Koapeng, for Cock and for classical music in South Africa?

The theme for the 2012 festival will be Improvisation (Mozart was renowned for his ability to improvise) and next year’s schedule will emphasise the skills of contemporary music’s greatest improvisers: the men and women of jazz.

Koapeng will be returning to his work at Wits University, where he teaches in the music department. As for Cock, he will keep on reinventing himself, as he puts it – finding new arrangements for the chamber choir he conducts, The Chanticleer Singers, and new ways to promote his passion.