“A unique opportunity for the transformation of the orchestral music sector in SA” or a deeply flawed plan “akin to orchestra capture” — opinions on the newly established Mzansi National Philharmonic Orchestra are deeply split.
The orchestra, formally announced by the department of sport, arts and culture on Thursday, is the brainchild of minister Nathi Mthethwa, who has budgeted R30m for its first year.
“Such a national orchestra, much like a national sports team, cannot exist in isolation. To be sustainable, the Mzansi NPO needs to be central to a national talent recruiting, refining and retaining system; the highest level of a multi-tiered developmental process for young South Africans, of which the regional orchestras remain a critical element,” read the department’s announcement.
But not everyone seems to share its sentiment. Conductor and music entrepreneur Richard Cock, who ran the National Symphony Orchestra from 1991 to 1999, dismissed the comparison with a national sports team.
It’s really sad that it’s coming at this time when the provincial orchestras are only just recovering from lockdown and getting back on their feet. The department should be spending money there to build a solid foundation
Conductor Richard Cock
“To spend all your budget on creating one national team and making out that it is something like the Bokke is rubbish because what you are actually doing is hollowing out the provincial teams and expecting them to feed you quality players without giving them proper funding,” Cock said.
“It’s really sad that it is coming at this time when the provincial orchestras are only just recovering from lockdown and getting back on their feet. The department should be spending money there to build a solid foundation.”
Speaking on behalf of the Mzansi NPO board of directors, Prof Muxe Nkondo said: “The orchestra is now fully constituted and embraces our responsibility to play a significant role in the cultural lives of SA’s vibrant and diverse communities, thus contributing to a socially cohesive society with a common national identity.”
This would be achieved, he said, through community engagement programmes, the development of orchestral music and indigenous music, finding and mentoring talented young musicians and supporting “the national brand around the world by presenting events which increase the global profile of SA and its talent”.
The department’s DG, Vusumuzi Mkhize, said the Mzansi NPO was SA’s first national orchestra in the democratic era, and a realisation of the Revised White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage approved by the cabinet in 2018 and endorsed by parliament in 2020.
Bongani Tembe — CEO of the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra and the KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestra — has been appointed CEO and artistic director of the Mzansi NPO. He said he will be working with other orchestras and partners in building the new team, which will be constituted on an ad hoc basis for performances — the first scheduled for July 27.
“The Mzansi NPO will be used as an effective tool to brand SA positively on the international stage,” he said.
“We can’t afford it and we don’t need it; It’s a folly, a personal folly of Nathi Mthethwa
Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra CEO Louis Heyneman
Louis Heyneman, CEO of the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra, is openly against the establishment of a national orchestra.
“We can’t afford it and we don’t need it; I think it’s a folly, a personal folly of Nathi Mthethwa,” he told Cape Talk this week.
“The players are not allocated on merit but placed at random. There are no auditions, they just invite whoever is on their list of players, they invite totally at random players to come and play. It’s a total duplication and a waste of money,” Heyneman said, criticising the huge costs involved in travel and accommodation for global tours.
“You can’t spend all R30m on a couple of concerts,” he said.
In an earlier interview with Daily Maverick he claimed the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra had been consulted only after the Mzansi NPO was already established. “This is akin to ‘orchestra capture’, where all the decisions about musical performance, transformation and training will be dominated by a few,” he said.
The Sunday Times was provided by the department with a fact sheet on the Mzansi NPO which states it is registered as a not-for-profit company and has been granted the status of a public benefit organisation (PBO) in terms of the Income Tax Act. It operates under the supervision of a board of directors “comprised of leading South Africans with high integrity”.
“Before its launch, the NPO conducted benchmarking on international models, including the French and Hungarian national orchestras, some audience engagement programmes employed by the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, various studies and reports available through the American Symphony Orchestra League.”
The R30m proposal comes in the aftermath of Mthethwa’s plans to spend R22m on a 100m-high “monumental” flag announced in May. It has since been labelled a vanity project and placed on review.