On Wednesday 13 November 2013 the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra walked out onto the stage and sat in a strange order. The first violins and violas sat where they always sit. The cellos and second violins changed places. The basses were behind the cellos. Miro Chakaryan, the concert master, stood up to make a speech. He pointed out that 2013 had been the lowest point in the life of the thirteen year old JPO and he thanked the audience for their support. It was a touching moment. He also explained that the reason for the strange seating was because this is how German romantic orchestras were laid out at the time that Schumann, Mendelssohn and Brahms wrote the works the audience was hearing.
The conductor was Adrian Prabava from Malaysia. I found him less than exciting – the Manfred Overture Op 115 by Robert Schumann and the Second Symphony by Brahms are both magnificent works but the renditions were plebian.
The concerto was Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, Op 64, E Minor, played by Yura Lee. I first heard Yura Lee play in the Unisa Piano Competition in 2010, where I identified her as my favourite in the very first round. She went on to win this very prestigious competition – the only recognised international music competition to be held in Africa. This present South African tour is part of the prize that Unisa awarded. As an aside, Yura Lee will be playing at Unisa on Monday 18 November 2013 and you can get tickets by contacting the Unisa Music Foundation (online or telephonically). I was looking forward to her playing this beautiful work. She did not disappoint. What a wonderful performance she delivered! She is an outstanding technician, but it is her communication through the music which is so arresting. Every person approaches listening to music differently. Some approach the work academically, analysing its form and phrases, while others let the music wash over them, freeing them to go places in their minds. I go with the latter approach and I could not help wondering what Yura Lee was thinking as she made each sweep of her bow. The rich interpretation made it clear that whatever she was thinking was not mindless technical exercise, but bold and sure declarations of fact and opinion, skillfully teased out to make an invincible case. It was exhilarating! Sadly, the conductor didn’t quite keep up with her.
As the concert master said, 2013 has been a low point for the JPO. They have been unemployed for most of the year, having two seasons only. However, they also played for the absolutely fascinating oratorio by Bongani Ndodana-Breen, Credo, at Unisa on Mandela Day. I was proud of them that day. The Lotto gave them some funding for ongoing work (nothing to be put towards old debts) but there seems to be some progress towards paying off old debts. The orchestra also has a new CEO, Duncan Gibbon. The real triumph of the year, though, has been this second season.
Programming for the second season has been considerably more interesting than it has been for a long time, with an attractive mix of well known and lesser known works. This bold step has paid dividends in increased attendance. Current subscribers are reminded to renew before the end of November failing which their seats will be snapped up by an eager crowd of new concert attenders wanting to subscribe for the 2014 seasons. Apparently there are funds in place for three seasons in 2014, while the traditional fourth season may or may not take place.
The orchestra has done well over the year, especially in light of the fact that it is no longer a full-time orchestra as we understand the term “full-time”. The woodwind section is world-class and the string section continue to benefit from Buskaid’s excellent training programme. The JPO’s own development programme (JPO Academy) headed by Sonja Bass is also feeding cadets into the orchestra.
All round the JPO has ended the year well, and there is hope for even better things to come in 2014. One of the things I continue to hope for is that Joburg City will come to the party with an understanding that a world class city needs a world class orchestra. The other thing I passionately wish for is funding for the JPO and Joburg Ballet to collaborate so that we can once again have some ballets with live music. Perhaps …