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UNITY GALA (article first published : 2004-11-18)

It seemed that everyone with any remote connection to South Africa, past and present, was at the Barbican in London last night (November 16) to honour a unique celebration of the country’s ten years of democracy. The event marked a historic first for South Africa, as the KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestra became the first South African fulltime professional orchestra to undertake a European tour in their collaboration with the famed London Symphony Orchestra. The LSO is currently celebrating its 100th anniversary.

Conducted by the inimitable French maestro, François-Xavier Roth, the programme featured the “Hymn of Praise” from Mendelssohn’s Symphony No 2 followed by South African composer Phelelani Mnomiya’s Zizi Lethu! Themba Lethu! and closing with a triumphant and resounding performance of Ravel’s Bolero.

There were close on 300 performers on stage including the combined orchestras; distinguished South African opera singers Linda Bukhosini and Bongani Tembe, fellow soloist Sally Silver, and two of the country’s best known choral societies: the award-winning Durban Serenade and the famous Soweto-based Imilonji KaNtu. Apart from some tentative entries, the choirs acquitted themselves extremely well and their bass singers are impressively strong.

The evening was a resounding success and rightly so. Apart from the status of the tour itself, the concert celebrated the world premiere of a brand new South African operatic work, cemented transatlantic ties between two major orchestras, and blazoned the message that cross-culture can – and does – work. I doubt there was anyone in the audience who had ever seen a choir perform the Mendelssohn piece in outfits ranging from traditional Zulu leopard skins, Xhosa turbans and Basutho hats to the joyously colourful contemporary African fashions!

I understand that severe space constraints on stage meant that the choirs had to be seated long before the audience and were not able to move until after the performance. However, it would be very effective in the future to allow them to wear fairly uniform outfits for the classical work, leaving the stage at interval to return to surprise and astound the audience with the colourful costumes for Zizi Lethu! Themba Lethu!.

For the fashion conscious, Linda Bukhosini looked wonderful in a stunning white ostrich feathered gown, changing to a more contemporary African style for the Mnomiya work. Both Linda and Bongani were in fine voice as was Sally Silver. Now based in London and fast becoming acknowledged as a top exponent of contemporary opera, South African audiences will remember her as Sally June Gain in the Queen series. Bheki Mkhwane (well-known for his theatre work with Ellis Pearson) put in a vigorous performance as the narrator.

The honours of the evening undoubtedly went to Phelelani Mnomiya who composed Zizi Lethu! Themba Lethu! (Our Hope) around a poem written by Dr Lindiwe Mabuza, South Africa’s High Commissioner to the UK. The orchestration by South African-based composers John Simon and Christopher James is masterly with a strong focus on the percussion section.

I missed the notes that appeared in the programme for the Durban performance, being particularly struck at the time by the explanation of how the loneliness of exile is depicted by distant clocks chiming and the occasional shimmering which referred to resistance fighters lying low in rural areas with the buzz of electric pylons about them.

I believe that Zizi Lethu! Themba Lethu! now needs to lose some of its oratorio style and become more of a continuous unit – each section flowing logically and smoothly into the other. This could be achieved through either spoken or sung links of poetry or perhaps having solo instruments bridging the gaps.

I am documenting the KZNPO tour in my capacity as a video producer and, even though we are now familiar with the works and know the tremendous talent and energy of all the performers, cameraman Chris Coombes and I sat in the audience consumed with nervousness before the concert. We needn’t have worried. The momentous occasion went off with very few hitches and we felt extremely proud to be part of the process.

The orchestra and choirs have now moved to Bremen in Germany where there will be a repeat performance – without the LSO and without Sally Gain – in the St Ansgarii Cathedral on Saturday evening (November 20). We are staying at the magnificent Park Hotel but more of that in another article! – Caroline Smart

This exciting collaboration between these orchestras, singers and choirs was made possible thanks to the generous sponsorship by The Government of KwaZulu-Natal, The Brett Kebble Foundation, SAA, Telkom and PetroSA. The KZNPO is grateful for the invaluable support from the South African High Commission in the United Kingdom as well as to the many people and institutions who have worked hard to make this historic journey a reality.




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