Intersection on the agenda
“The orchestra is a kind of museum,” says Paul Hanmer, “but it could be so much more—especially since we aren’t living in Vienna or Berlin.”
Pianist, jazzman and concert music composer Hanmer is reading a collection of historical essays about the orchestra, underlining its ties with class and power. He’s also anticipating the South African premiere of his Clarinet Quintet next week in Cape Town—part of a tour by the renowned Swiss-based casalQuartett with South African soloist Robert Pickup.
The tour comes at a time when debate about diversity in South Africa’s classical music establishment has moved out of the green room and into the papers.
Composer Mokale Koapeng, previewing last week’s premiere of his work, Dipesalema tsa Dafita, at the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival, told Times Live he blamed South African orchestras themselves for the paucity of black support for their concerts.
“Black people worldwide have made significant contributions to [Western] classical music,” he said, citing examples such as violinist George Bridgetower, to whom Beethoven initially dedicated the Kreutzer Sonata. “Groups like the JPO [Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra],” he said, had “miseducated” blacks about this legacy.
Koapeng’s comments provoked an indignant letter from the JPO’s Shadrack Bokaba, containing an impressive litany of scholarships and development workshops.
But that, says Koapeng, missed the point. “The response pointed to lack of understanding that this debate was about the discourse of classical music in this country. If there are workshops, why do we see so few results from them among the ranks of players and in programming?
Why does season programming largely ignore indigenous composers, historical or new? It’s the symphony season that tells the personality of an orchestra—yet we hear very little that speaks of Africa.”
Hanmer agrees: “It’s bigger than programming—it’s a whole ideology. Among the musicians I’ve encountered elsewhere in the world—Scandinavia, for example—the universal route is to study Western art music and then the indigenous music of their countries. Here we only seem to do the first part and huge numbers of people have been excluded even from that.”
Neither composer denies Western classical music its place. Hanmer says: “It took me a long time to accept that studying classical piano had been a beautiful thing for me and informs everything I do.”
Koapeng regrets that “some of my jazz brothers let the behaviour of the classical establishment cloud their view of the music” and speaks of drawing early inspiration from Richard Strauss, Keith Jarrett and his own father, Tukisi Koapeng, a pioneer member of Dr Khabi Mngoma’s Ionian Music Society.
A magical moment for Koapeng at the premiere was the attendance of Unisa’s Milton Oersen, who flew up from Cape Town. The 93-year-old was Mngoma’s piano tutor, accompanist to the Ionian Music Society and a friend of Tukisi Koapeng.
“Oersen’s teacher was Mark Radebe, founder of the African Choral Eistedfodd in 1930. So for an orchestra today to talk of “pioneering’ curriculum for black music students is seriously revisionist. I owe my musical outlook and education to Soweto,” Koapeng says.
He recalls the accomplished, erudite classical players—his own family, the Khumalos, the Moeketsis and others—around George Goch hostel, his first piano teacher Peter Molobye, concerts at the White City Soweto Tabernacle and Sunday morning music theory classes at Uncle Tom’s Hall.
“Even in the 1980s, with the Fuba Academy, the Madimba and Alexandra Arts Institutes, musicians were exposing themselves to popular, jazz and classical music. It collapsed after 1994, when funding fell away. And we have tragically missed an opportunity to preserve both that history and a space for creating musical intersections.”
Hanmer’s work strongly reflects that spirit of intersections. He’s also preparing for an early March tour with steelpan player Dave Reynolds: “I’ve never written for pans before and I think we’re both going to learn by developing it.”
And the first movement of the Clarinet Quartet, Ferrante, was written to honour Yellowjackets keyboard player Russell Ferrante and hint at his compositional style, but with a bass line played on the cello. “At the Swiss premiere,” Hanmer says, “the cellist was someone who had booked Ferrante for a recording session and understood that tradition. It’ll be interesting to hear how it works out with a different player.
Hanmer appreciates the European context, with its mix of smaller ensembles—musicians who cross over between classical music and other genres—and more open, flexible venues. “That makes it possible to take risks on new work, which a classical music scene has to do to stay out of the museum.”
But stereotyped attitudes to African music persist. He recalls a Swiss player commenting, “When I think of African music, I think more of street music”, and has heard from other touring South Africans who’ve encountered audiences “only wanting the groove. They don’t want something sophisticated, where our diverse backgrounds mesh into something at a very high level.”
Hanmer recalls pianist Denzil Weale urging him back in the early 1990s to “start composing for orchestra, because only by hearing your stuff played by orchestras can you learn how to write for orchestra”.
That’s something Koapeng also feels keenly. “There are now quite a few African concert composers—Bongani Ndodana-Breen, Hanmer, Lloyd Prince, Phelelani Mnomiya, Mzilikazi Khumalo and more. But the great majority occupying that space are choral composers.”
He runs workshops for this group “because we have to get away from a situation of black composers writing for voices and then having to approach a more privileged composer to do the orchestration. That’s not satisfactory. It’s equivalent to asking: will you put a layer of your aesthetics on top of my music?’”
“What we need now,” says Hanmer, “is a bit of African composer advocacy.” “This is primarily and vitally about transforming the cultural landscape,” says Koapeng. “But if the bulk of your budget is directed towards the European canon, African composers are also being denied the right to livelihood.”
The casalQuartett with Robert Pickup will play historical and contemporary works from Europe and South Africa, including Paul Hanmer’s Clarinet Quartet at St George’s Cathedral, Cape Town, on February 9 at 7.30pm; the Endler Hall, Stellenbosch University, on February 10 at 8pm; the Enoch Sontonga Hall at Unisa, Pretoria, on February 11 at 7.30pm; and Northwards House in Johannesburg on February 13 at 6pm. Tel: 021 465 9033.