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MUSICAL STORM (article first published : 2003-01-15)

Down in Durban a musical storm is raging - and it's not Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony.

There has been a falling-out between the KwaZulu Natal Philharmonic Orchestra, the country's only full-time, professional, publicly-funded orchestra and the amateur Durban City Orchestra which also performs as the Gateway Philharmonic.

Sounds of discord have been audible for a while, but they reached a crescendo before Christmas when an open letter from Philipp Maier, the German-born pianist and airline pilot who is the musical director of the DCO, appeared on two prominent arts websites, www.artsmart.co.za (see Letters to the Editor) and www.artslink.co.za.

The DCO has traditionally functioned with a core of amateur players, retired professionals and students from the University of Natal and the Durban Music School. Until last October, it was augmented by between eight and 12 members of the KZNPO, particularly when playing as the Gateway Philharmonic in Umhlanga's Gateway shopping centre as part of a contract negotiated by Maier.

According to Maier, Bongani Tembe, CEO and artistic director of the KZNPO and a respected singer and a graduate of the Juilliard School in New York, threatened KZNPO musicians with the loss of their jobs if they continued to play for the DCO. Maier's letter attacks Tembe, calling into question his qualifications for leading a professional orchestra and accusing him of "actively obstructing musical education in this country".

Maier accuses Tembe of professional jealousy and claims that the trouble started when the Gateway sponsorship began. "Tembe was desperate to get that contract, but Gateway don't want a professional orchestra, they want something that represents their shopper profile. They never thought about asking the KZNPO," says Maier. The KZNPO is about to launch its 20th anniversary season, but Maier claims the orchestra's audience is dwindling through poor planning and programming.

Tembe has been very reluctant to respond to Maier's letter and still refuses to say anything about the personal attacks. He insists that it is a purely a matter of business. "Our musicians are fully employed by this orchestra; we can't let them compete with it," he says.

Orchestral musicians can and do take on outside work, and as long as it does not clash with their commitments to the KZNPO, they do it with Tembe's blessing. Many teach or play with Baroque 2000, the Kerimov Trio, the Steel Band Foundation or other groups. According to their standard contracts, they have to get permission to do this but, as long as what they do is not perceived as competition for the orchestra, this is readily given.

Tembe explains that in the days when Naum Rousine conducted the DCO, KZNPO musicians regularly played for him. "But if Maier wants to put on symphonic concerts, we can't give him the resources to compete against us," he says, adding that he asked Maier not to use "Philharmonic" in the title of the orchestra playing at Gateway, so as to avoid confusion, but Maier went ahead. Tembe has had a meeting with his musicians, pointing out that the DCO's activities could impact on the KZNPO. And he says he will not back down.

The KZNPO's concert master Hristo Kardjiev is more outspoken. "This whole thing is wasting our time," he says. "And our image is being damaged. It is silly to have two orchestras in this town. The KZNPO is the main one, and this is tarnishing our image and affecting our future." He is also openly critical of Maier as a musician, saying that if he was good, the KZNPO would be using him on their podium as a guest conductor.

The current stand-off has certainly created difficulties for Maier who has also fallen out with Werner Dannewitz, head of the Durban Music School. In his letter, he accuses Dannewitz of trying to obstruct his work by refusing to let his students play in the DCO. Dannewitz is infuriated by this allegation - he explains that once, in his capacity as conductor of the KZN Youth Wind Band, he had to veto members of the Wind Band playing at Gateway as they had a prior commitment to play in a concert at the Country Club. "But the Music School has had nothing to do with Maier," he says.

Dannewitz says he encourages Music School students and Wind Band members, some of whom are also KZNPO cadets, to play with the DCO as ad hoc musicians. "I am very sorry Maier feels like this - and I'm sorry he attacks Tembe who has done an excellent job with the KZNPO and is very supportive of youth music. We are working for music; I don't know where Maier is coming from," he says.

For the DCO, it looks as if things are reaching a critical stage. In December, Maier got sponsorship to fly musicians up from Port Elizabeth to play in concerts, but that cannot be a long-term solution. And an amateur musician who used to play with the DCO says that several amateurs have quit, finding that the fun is going out of their music.

This kind of spat between orchestras - and their chiefs - is not unusual; Johannesburg is seeing something very similar as well, but classical music is in a fragile state and things in Durban are becoming destructive. Asked for their opinions, most people in the musical scene credit Tembe with being the man who has ensured the survival of the KZNPO against the odds - and it seems a pity that the current row now threatens to drown out the music. - Margaret von Klemperer




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