‘Violas in the Wild’ by Andrea Erasmus

I grew up in Cape Town, South Africa.  My mother is German, and it is a tradition in her family that everyone learns an instrument.  I started on the violin at the age of 8 as there happened to be a violin teacher in the suburb I grew up in.  When I was 13, my teacher suggested I try out her daughter’s student viola during the summer holidays.  The rest, as they say, is history.  I fell in love with the sound of the C string, and felt much more comfortable on the bigger instrument.  Unlike in Europe, we don’t have many dedicated music schools here.  Even though there are many “normal” schools with fantastic music departments, I went to a high school where I was considered to be a bit weird for playing a classical instrument – and who had ever heard of the viola?!  Thank goodness for the annual South African National Youth Orchestra course, where like-minded kids between the ages of 13-24 from all over the country get together for ten inspirational days to work on challenging symphonic repertoire.  I particularly enjoyed having the best seats in the orchestra: between the violin sections to our right, cellos and basses on our left, winds and brass behind us; right in the middle of the music!  Firm friendships were formed at these courses, and we looked forward to meeting up and performing together year after year.  The experience of performing with both the National Youth Orchestra and the Cape Town-based Western Cape Youth Orchestra profoundly influenced me in my decision to persevere with my viola studies.  (It was in the viola section of the Western Cape Youth Orchestra that Louise Lansdown and I became friends in 1985!)  I think it is safe to say that all professional South African musicians performed in the National Youth Orchestra at some point during their studies.

After school I initially studied for a B.Sc. in Zoology the University of Cape Town – so I could end up with a “proper” job – but, ironically, paid for these studies by playing as a student extra for the two professional orchestras in Cape Town.  After completing the B.Sc., I finally followed my heart: I was awarded a bursary to study for the Postgraduate Diploma in Music in Performance with Prof. Jürgen Schwietering at UCT.  It was a wonderful experience to play for both the CAPAB orchestra (which was the theatre orchestra and played for operas, ballets and musicals) and for the Cape Town Symphony Orchestra (which focused on the symphonic repertoire) for almost seven years.  I had the privilege of performing with superb local and international conductors, singers and instrumentalists.

After 1994, the newly democratic South Africa was a country facing many new challenges of providing housing, electricity, running water and education to citizens excluded from these basic needs in the past, so funding for the classical arts was reduced.  Traditional South African art forms had not received any government support previously, so new arts policies and structures had to be debated and implemented.  As a result of the reduced funding available for orchestras, the two Cape Town orchestras were amalgamated in 1997.  The combined number of viola players of the two orchestras made up the section for the new Cape Philharmonic Orchestra, so there was much less demand for extra players. I moved to Port Elizabeth in 1996 to work as music organiser in the Eastern Cape offices of the Cape Performing Arts Board, which had been running the Eastern Cape Philharmonic Orchestra since the middle 1980’s.  The former Cape Province was divided up into Northern, Western and Eastern Cape prior to the 1994 elections, and the available arts funding was similarly divided amongst the new provinces.  New arts administration processes and staff were put in place by the administration of the new provinces, and the CAPAB Eastern Cape offices were closed at the end of 1997.

The thought of never having the opportunity to play orchestral music again was devastating, so together with two other musicians of the ECPO, I worked hard to re-establish the ECPO as a Not for Profit company in 1998.  The musicians of the ECPO, as well as the guest soloist and conductor played the first concert for no fee.  I gained valuable hands-on arts administration experience putting on these concerts: I was responsible for preparing budgets for the proposed concerts, booking the musicians required, drawing up their contracts, arranging transport and accommodation for the out-of-town musicians, designing and printing concert posters, writing programme notes, hiring venues and planning concert advertising.  I worked as viola player and administrator for the orchestra for two years, before my husband was transferred to Bloemfontein.

At the beginning of 2000, the Performing Arts Board of the Free State was no longer in a position to support the part-time PACOFS orchestra.  The Free State Symphony Orchestra was established as a Not for Profit company to continue the orchestral tradition in Bloemfontein.  Building on my experience of arts administration gained in Port Elizabeth, I once again got involved with building up an orchestra.  Similarly to Port Elizabeth, the Bloemfontein musicians tried to maintain a rhythm of one performance per month for 10 months of the year.  Both of these orchestras consisted of a combination of professional players who were either university lecturers or music teachers, amateurs who had other professions but still enjoyed playing their instruments at a high level, and excellent students and scholars.  Both orchestras presented a variety of programmes throughout the year:  symphony concerts, pops concerts, choral concerts and youth concerto festivals.  Local businesses, arts foundations, and occasionally municipal and provincial sources provided funding, and the University of the Free State and the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University provided office and administrative support.  Musicians were paid on a per session basis.

Even though I was not specifically trained for it, getting involved with the concert administration was a means to an end for me.  The more energy and passion I put into my work, the more opportunities I had to do what I love most: playing the viola in an orchestra.  In an effort to maintain my own playing standard, I also arranged and performed in regular chamber music concerts.  Whenever possible, these programmes were repeated in smaller towns throughout the Eastern Cape and Free State provinces.  These chamber concerts provided participating musicians with playing opportunities between orchestral concerts.

In 2003 my husband was once again transferred, this time to Johannesburg.  Like Cape Town, Johannesburg has a long history of orchestral concerts.  Famous international artists such as Pierre Boulez, Malcolm Sargent and Igor Stravinsky worked with the National Symphony Orchestra, funded by the South African Broadcasting Corporation.  However, in 2000, this funding came to an end, and the orchestra closed down.  The musicians then formed the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra.  With much effort, corporate sponsors were found and occasional symphony seasons were staged.  As this new company built up its reputation over the years, symphony seasons and other performances were presented on a more regular basis, until enough government funding was secured in 2007 to form a 45-member fulltime salaried orchestra.  Between 2007 and 2012, the JPO presented 24 weeks of symphony concerts per year, played for ballets and operas in Johannesburg and Pretoria, presented regular school concerts in and around Johannesburg, performed with many local choirs and secured occasional commercial concerts.  Once again, I got involved with the administration of the orchestra.  Although difficult to balance the demands of being a player with the demands of office work, it is also extremely rewarding to interact on a personal level with the visiting conductors and soloists.

The time spent working with the JPO have been the best years of my musical life.  Visiting conductors and soloists regularly praise the excellent playing standard of the orchestra, and comment positively on the wonderful vibe amongst the players, how much the players transmit their joy of performing to the audience.  We have played many repertoire standards as well as challenging new works.  We were involved in exciting projects such as recording the world premiere of Samuel Coleridge Taylor’s violin concerto with Philippe Graffin, performed sold out concerts with international stars like Joshua Bell, Julian Lloyd-Webber and Pinchas Zukerman, recorded the music for the opening and closing ceremonies of both the Confederations Cup and the Soccer World Cup and performed at the inauguration of President Zuma at the Union Buildings in Pretoria.  We were also the orchestra of choice for accompanying choirs from all over South Africa for broadcast on the choral music programme on the SABC. Some of these experiences may be common for European orchestras, in the South African context they are notable.

Unfortunately the uncertainty caused by the lack of clarity on how orchestras should be funded in South Africa, slow government arts department payment processes and misguided decisions by the Board resulted in the JPO running up very large debts by the end of 2012.  The JPO Board members had consented to the continued presentation of concerts in the expectation that promised government funding was imminent.  These debts resulted in the company being placed into Business Rescue, and all orchestra members losing their full time employment.  Business Rescue protected the company against debtors, and allowed the Board to investigate an alternative business plan.  Funding was secured in the middle of 2013 from the government for 24 weeks of symphony concerts, a Pops concert and for the JPO Academy.  The JPO Academy had been established in 2009 to train young musicians in orchestral studies.  The long term plan was that these young instrumentalists would become cadets in the JPO, and after a period of on-the-job training including tuition from JPO members, would be good enough to win a full time position in the orchestra through an audition process.  There are a number of young black viola players in the country at the moment, whose talent and dedication gives us huge hopes for the future of orchestral music.  Once again, the administration processes required to receive the funding were very slow: the first payment tranche was received in July 2013, the second one only in October 2014.  It becomes very difficult to plan concert seasons under these circumstances, as first choice soloists and conductors plan their schedules many months in advance, and are not available at short notice.  For the orchestra, dealing with the lack of stability in players from concert to concert is difficult; as players are freelancers, they may not be available when a new concert is planned.

A number of other orchestral groups exist in the Gauteng province, such as the Johannesburg Festival Orchestra, the Johannesburg Music Initiative and the Gauteng Philharmonic Orchestra in Pretoria.  They all perform on an ad hoc basis.  The past two and a half years have been difficult for the unemployed JPO musicians.  Although some players have been in high demand for other orchestral groups, other players have had fewer work opportunities.  Most players have increased their teaching load.  Despite the apparent government funding difficulties for orchestras, which were perceived as elitist, most teachers cannot keep up with the demand for instrumental teaching in all sections of the South African community.  Many teaching projects in black townships have long waiting lists.

For me, the irregular playing opportunities have been financially difficult, but I have had much more time to devote to my daughter, who is now in grade 3 at school.  I have been able to be around in the afternoons to help with her homework when necessary.  However, from the playing perspective, it requires a lot of self-discipline to keep in shape, especially when one doesn’t know when the next playing opportunity will arise.  It is not easy for the orchestra as a whole to maintain our excellent playing standards under these conditions.

Despite the irregular performance schedule, the JPO has maintained a very faithful and enthusiastic audience.  This orchestra is the only one in the country to perform each symphony programme three times in each week of a season – in fact, we used to repeat some programmes a fourth time in Pretoria.  Our audience is growing, and is becoming younger and more racially diverse.

Since 1994, orchestras have strived to serve all communities in South Africa.  We don’t only perform in one concert hall and expect the audience to travel to us. Instead we travel to church and school halls, or public parks for open air concerts in various suburbs, to make orchestral music accessible to all communities.  We now programme works by black South African composers in the main symphony season and perform regularly with choirs from all over South Africa.  Choral conductors have been, and continue to be, trained in orchestral conducting.  Our singers are of the best in the world, as proven by the number of singers employed by many of the top international opera houses.

Compared to the other cities in South Africa, the pool of professional orchestral musicians is relatively large in Joburg, which is an advantage when programming  works like a Mahler or Bruckner symphony.  However, in the current situation where all organisations are working on a freelance basis, there is competition for the limited performing opportunities.  The current situation has lead to musicians having to be innovative in creating work opportunities for themselves.

Distances are vast in SA so we don’t see our colleagues from Cape Town or Durban, unless one is booked as an extra player for a concert in those centres.  The number of performing opportunities outside of the pure classical world, such as with a Michael Bublé or an Andrea Bocelli, or film recordings and musicals, are more limited here than in other parts of the world.  With money being tight, the producers often contract much smaller groups of instrumentalists and make up the lack of musicians by using keyboards.

South Africa is far away from the international performing world, so we are out of the loop  regarding the current top viola players.  The piano, violin and cello are the preferred solo instruments of our audience, so the opportunity of hearing new viola concertos or exciting young players live doesn’t exist at all.  Thank goodness for Youtube and CDs, but it means students of the instrument miss out on the stimulation and encouragement from hearing top international soloists perform.  The South African Viola Society gets together occasionally, but with distances in our country being so vast, we see our colleagues from other parts of the country rarely.

Access to new sheet music is also difficult.  It has to be imported, which increases the cost and the time taken to get here.  Similarly, strings and other accessories are very expensive because they have to be imported.  The opportunity to experiment with new products is small, unless a colleague brings them back to SA from their travels.  Luckily we have excellent luthiers in the major centres, so instrument repairs are not a problem, unlike for our wind and brass colleagues.

In Johannesburg we dream of having a dedicated concert hall.  The JPO performs in what is basically a university lecture theatre.  The University of the Witwatersrand is very supportive, and assists us with the rental cost of the hall, but we are very jealous of orchestras around the world who have their own concert homes.  In fact, our office is 20km away from where we usually perform.

Despite these problems and challenges, I love the interesting places the viola continues to take me!  My viola has allowed me the opportunity to travel to parts of the world I would not ordinarily see.  Some highlights stand out:

A tour with the South African National Youth Orchestra to the International Youth Festival in Aberdeen in 1994.  It was a wonderful experience meeting other young musicians from around the world and making music together.

A trip to Namibia in 2010 with five colleagues from Bloemfontein and Namibia, to play for a group of French tourists in the Namib desert.  While we were rehearsing, we had an audience of six gemsbok (oryx) standing in a semi-circle, listening to Mozart’s clarinet quintet and flute quartet – truly an Out-of-Africa experience!

In August 2014, the JPO was invited on its first international tour to perform at the 6th Gabala International Music Festival in Azerbaijan.  It was an unforgettable week of music making, with six challenging programmes presented in seven days.  The schedule was intense, with one 4-hour rehearsal per concert per day, allowing only for a play-through of the programme, with little time to rehearse.  The JPO couldn’t have coped without the players being able to draw on the extensive collective experience gained over five years of full time existence.  The setting of the open air stage in the Caucasian Mountains in Gabala was spectacular, an inspiration for excellent performances, and our hosts were warm and hospitable.  After the insecurities of the previous 2 years, this tour was a wonderful healing opportunity for the JPO musicians.  For ten days all we had to do was focus on the quality of our performances; our expertise was appreciated and we were able (temporarily) to push financial worries and other responsibilities to the back of our minds.

At every concert, whether in South Africa or abroad, it is a privilege to perform with (in my only slightly biased opinion!) the best musicians in South Africa.  The JPO members share a wonderful camaraderie: we hang out together after performances, we enjoy being able to say “see you next week” when given the opportunity to perform a symphony season.  It is thrilling to experience the teamwork on stage when we perform to an excellent standard.  We will keep the faith and stay determined in the fight for orchestral music to thrive on the African continent.  At the time of writing, the JPO is almost out of business rescue, and the potential for re-establishing a full time orchestra is good.  Each JPO musician sacrificed the large sums of money owed to them (in the order of £6000 each!) to give the institution a chance of rebirth.  The JPO orchestra members have demonstrated many times in the past that they are willing to go the extra mile to make orchestral music relevant to all communities.  Many members teach at outreach projects, often for no or little payment.  They take responsibility in many forms to help the organisation to prosper. Hopefully we have learnt from our mistakes and a better chance of continuity exists now. Despite everything: I love my job!! And here’s holding thumbs that we perform some viola concertos in the future!

Andrea Erasmus 

With sincere thanks to Duncan Gibbon (interim CEO of the JPO, leading us from the front through the hazards of Business Rescue), Martie Botha (my JPO desk partner) and Sonja Bass (cellist in the JPO) for their input to this article!

10th April 2015