Music has power to unite people, says opera veteran Bongani Tembe

He exclusively spoke to CITYLIFE/ARTS ahead of new season of Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra series featuring international and local classical music talent at Linder Auditorium, starting this Thursday.

By Edward Tsumele, CITYLIFE/ARTS Editor

Music besides entertainment plays another crucial role beyond this intrinsic value, and that is, it has the power to unite a fractured nation whose history is as complex as the efforts to try and untangle itself from it.

Some will immediately point out that this is a description that aptly fits the complicated history of South Africa. South Africa is a country still struggling to shake off the legacy from that dark past and create a new united country where all its elements from the past are moving in a cohesive fashion and in one direction in order to create a new cohesive society.. However there is still a long way to go. But that ideal can be achieved through the power of music, believes internationally respected opera music veteran Bongani Tembe, who is at the helm of the two most prominent classical music organizations in the country, the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra (JPO) and the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra.

He is Chief Executive and Artistic Director of both orchestras, and is an influential figure within the classical music space in the country.

Tembe spoke exclusively to CITYLIFE/ARTS this week, ahead of a new season of performances by the JPO at the Linder Auditorium at the University of the Witwatersrand Education Campus in Parktown, starting this Thursday, June 9, 2022.

In the interview, also also strongly defended the privileged position of opera music in contemporary art,  pointing out its transformative potential and the roles the the organisation he leads, JPO, is playing in skills transfer to young people, particularly from the black communities.

This new season, coming as it does against the background of difficulties the creative sector has faced in the past two years due to the global pandemic, will see international classical musicians as well as local talent go on stage during what promises to be an exciting programme of classical music performances.

And those billed to perform will sample from a rich creative reservoir of compositions by past masters of the genre, and those who love this type of music, and I must confess that I am one of them, will be happy to know that perennial crowd attractions such as Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and Richmaninoff, among others, are part of the programme.

“When contextualizing this series of symphony concerts, it is important to note that music besides entertainment also plays the important part of uniting people, creating social cohesion. It is also an important point to note that these series of concerts, will also put the brand Johannesburg up there internationally.  This point is important with regards to contributing to tourism development in the city of Johannesburg,” Tembe said.

Though these points that Tembe makes are valued and clearly important, detractors of classical music often point out the issue of the relevance of classical music in society. This is particularly so in the context of a country such as South Africa in which the gap between the poor and the rich is the biggest in the world, they argue.

 The classical music is a genre, clearly patronised and enjoyed by the wealthy and comfortable in society. In reality the art form remains inaccessible to the majority. This is in terms of both appreciation and affordability. But differently, and in short and quite bluntly, to understand classical music, you need to be born or have grown in a certain privileged position. This is besides the fact that you need to have the kind of disposable income that will get you that important ticket to the concert, against other competing needs for existence.

“The point you are making is important and I have heard such issues raised before. They were certainly raised as early as the 80s, when I and my wife (opera singer Linda Bukhosini), were the only black professional opera singers of the time in South Africa. However the point is, opera music is about telling a story, any story, including African stories. For example, as I performed around the world, I had always wished for a day when African stories, such as those of Shaka Ka Senzangakhona and Mandela would be told on stage through the opera form. Today I am glad that I have since witnessed that in my life time. In fact Bongani Ndodana created a Winnie Mandela Opera in recent years, and she actually sat next to me during that performance,” said Tembe.

He also pointed out that the JPO and KZN, the two outfits of which he is at their helm, have in the past collaborated with popular musicians outside classical music circles, such as Thandiswa Mazwai, Caiphus Semenya, Madosini, Mbuso Khoza and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, for example.

“Just the other day, I received a call from Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuso expressing his desire to do a performance with an orchestra. And as JPO we go out into the townships to create awareness about this classical music art form. We also have a programme within the JPO where we identify young talent from the black community to give them skills through our skills transfer programme. We also have a fellowship programme that sees young talented South Africans, most of them from the black community being sent overseas on a scholarship to learn at top classical music schools. We  currently have two such young people who are in the UK at the moment,” Tembe revealed.

For now music classical music lovers can brace themselves for soulful classical music genre during this season that is sure to warm them up during this biting winter season. 

This is because according to Tembe the  Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra’s World Symphony Series returns with a Winter Season of favourite symphonies to warm the hearts of classical music lovers, on Thursday evenings from 9 to 30 June 2022.

Samson Diamond

Featuring accomplished international conductors and soloists, as well as the cream of South African artists, the JPO will once again delight audiences at the Linder Auditorium this winter after its successful Summer Season earlier this year. Expect performances of beloved symphonies and concertos by composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky, and witness exciting solo performances by distinguished soloists from around the world and South Africa. 

 “We are delighted to be able to offer Gauteng residents and visitors to Joburg a lively and heart-warming Winter Season. We invite audiences to continue supporting the wonderful, quality work being done by the musicians of the JPO and look forward to being enriched by the power and beauty of classical music,” says Tembe..”

 The season opens on Thursday 9 June 2022 with the JPO performing under the baton of American conductor Robert Moody, music director of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, and featuring dynamic young Venezuelan flautist Joidy Bianco.

 The programme includes the Overture to Mozart’s opera Cosi fan tutte as well as his Concerto for Flute No. 2, plus Pablo de Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs), and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7.

 On Thursday 16 June 2022, expect musical fireworks. “Dynamic, vigorous, exciting and imaginative” Israel-born conductor Daniel Boico, the artistic director of the Free State Symphony Orchestra and former assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, will once again take the stage with the JPO. They will be joined by two soloists: multi-award-winning local violinist Samson Diamond, who heads up the Odeion String Quartet at the University of the Free State, as well as Jeanne-Louise Moolman, the violist with the quartet. 

The programme for the evening features Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5.

 A long-standing friend of the JPO, Bernhard Gueller, the principal guest conductor of the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra, returns to conduct the JPO on Thursday 23 June 2022 in a concert featuring 19-year-old soloist Leo Gevisser, an exceptional South African-born piano prodigy who is currently studying at Juilliard School in New York. Expect to witness a young star in the making! On the programme is Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 4, plus Dvoák’s Symphony No. 6.

The JPO will wrap up its Winter Season on Thursday 30 June 2022, once again under the baton of maestro Gueller. They will perform with soloist Bryan Wallick, an accomplished American virtuoso pianist who has lived in South Africa for a long time.  On the menu for the evening is one of the most dramatic piano concertos in the classical music repertoire, Prokofiev’s Concerto for Piano No. 3.  The Season closes with Brahms’ Symphony No. 3.

.Patrons can enjoy discounted rates for season tickets, which are only available through the JPO Office by emailing or phoning 011 484 0446. Tickets for single concerts are available through Quicket.

Please share

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *