As we approached the Cape Town City Hall on Tuesday, June 20, 2023, to attend the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, playing Gustav Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, conducted by Benjamin Zander, we took a moment to stand on the Grand Parade, flanking City Hall, to contemplate the 1.95m high bronze sculptutre of Nelson Mandela, which is on the balcony, of the façade of City Hall, overlooking the Grand Parade.  It is mounted at the exact spot where Madiba presented his first public speech after his release from jail on February 11, 1990. Viewing the sculpture in the dark of night, with crowds streaming in to the concert, we basked in the light and hope of Madiba and his legacy.

South Africa in 2023 is experiencing an acute electricity crisis, with load shedding (aka rolling power outages). The power outages have discouraged many people from venturing out at night as street lights are and traffic lights are out of action.  Going at night is for people who have access to private transport. Safe and accessible public transport in Cape Town remains a burning issue. Despite the electricity issues and cold weather, the BPYO concert was sold out. The entire BPYO 2023 tour of SA was sold out, or close to, with near capacity audiences.

In addition to the concerts, the BPYO was involved with exciting collaborations with community groups, pop-ups, workshops and interventions. The response was rapturous- wherever the BPYO went – with the bringing together of youth from the USA and youth in South Africa.  As I gazed up at the Madiba sculpture on the balcony of the City Hall, I held onto the symbolism of this great human, watching over us as we packed the beautiful City Hall.

Zander founded the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra. It is his baby and he told an enthralled crowd that he pledged to Madiba (who he met on three occasions) that one day, he would bring his youth orchestra to South Africa. Dovetailing with his work as a conductor (and his prodigious recording career) are Zander’s outreach and leadership programmes.  It is not simply about presenting concerts.  It extends to the interactions and exchange on the ground, with communities, away from the haloed halls of beautiful concert venues.  On that note, the Cape Town City Hall has been renovated, and is looking great.  Stunning restrooms.  The concert venue has terrific acoustics, essential to experience Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony– a five act epic enactment of cycles of life and death. Zander: “It describes Death, memories, the futility of life, turning towards God and, in the final movement, the Day of Judgment itself. It is a vast panoramic view of all of life expressed through the full resources of the romantic orchestra.” [].  

For the performance at Cape Town City Hall of the Resurrection Symphony, there were 192 on stage [musicians and singers]. The Gauteng Choristers shared the stage with the BPYO and soloists. It was exhilarating to see the energy and artistry of the young musicians in the BPYO (ranging from 12 to 21 in age) and their focus on Zander, at the podium. The charismatic conductor spoke to the audience, before and after the concert. He spoke about the symphony. He spoke about the joy of being in South Africa and the opportunity for exchange between the BPYO and musicians, artists and others in South Africa, He spoke about the experience of performing the Resurrection Symphony in Soweto at the Regina Mundi Church, where six minutes before the end of the piece, the lights went down, on account of load shedding. With the light of torches from mobile phones (audience and Gauteng Choristers), the concert continued.

One can well imagine how emblematic the Soweto concert has become as part of the BPYO’s 2023 tour of South Africa. They came and with all the stumbling blocks, of load shedding, cold weather, not only did concerts sell out but the Soweto concert was lit by the light of mobile phone torches.

In the interview with me, Zander reflected: “There is another leitmotif of the tour  shining eyes.  The excitement of new experiences, intermingling of young people from different parts of the world; the challenge and joy of great music shared with others.  The BPYO musicians love the music and each other. During the tour they get to love and understand a new culture…”

For those of us who live in South Africa, the likelihood of lights going down has become a work-around of attending live performance. Sure, we smile and we switch on the torches of our mobile phones but sadly, it makes us feel, well, sad. We feel frustration, despair and extreme anxiety. Creatives have to navigate unsafe public transport to get home. Yes, there is a sense of resilience that no matter what, we can commune and experience wonderful live performance. However, we are living the story and the dark and cold reality of the situation.  I can understand how visitors from America are awed by the majesty and allure of the show going on but it has become a commonplace occurrence, for us.

It was a treat and incredible opportunity to experience the BPYO, conducted by Zander in Cape Town City Hall which is a building which potently bridges the past and the present, with Madiba watching over us. Bravo to the BPYO, Benjamin Zander and importantly to Classical Movements in the USA, the tour operator/producer/impresario organisation which facilitated this tour. One can imagine the logistics of organising a tour with a youth orchestra (many are very young) – across South Africa – navigating challenges of load shedding, cold weather and so on. The result as we saw at Cape Town City Hall was a concert to remember – brimming with artistry and vooma (the South African word for energy, vibrancy, charisma, presence).

We thank Classical Movements for its investment in classical music in South Africa (the company has facilitated other classical music tours to SA). We are grateful to the vision of Benjamin Zander in making his dream a reality. Big kudos to Classical Movements and Benjamin Zander for making this tour inclusive – performing and interacting in communities across the divide of old South African Apartheid divides – of White and Black. They took music to diverse communities and to venues and this is very much a shining light for us in 2023 South Africa.

Mahler in Cape Town: The Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, playing Gustav Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, conducted by Benjamin Zander, Cape Town City Hall, June 20, 2023. Pic – supplied.
Madiba watching over The Grand Parade. This sculpture of Nelson Mandela, on the façade of Cape Town City Hall is by Barry Jackson and Xhanti Mpakama and was unveiled on July 24, 2018. The 1.95 metre bronze sculpture is on the balcony of Cape Town City Hall, which overlooks The Grand Parade. This is where the crowds gathered when Madiba presented his first public speech after his release from jail on February 11, 1990. Madiba stood in the balcony, in the exact spot of the sculpture. This photo was taken as we arrived at Cape Town City Hall, June 20, 2023, on a dark night in winter, to attend a concert by the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra: Gustav Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. The concert featured the Gauteng Choristers (directed by Sidwell Mhlongo), Andiswa Makana (soprano) and Bongiwe Nakani Mcetywa (mezzo soprano.) Photo © TheCapeRobyn/Robyn Cohen, June 20, 2023.

✳Featured image – Benjamin Zander, conducting the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra on its 2023 tour in South Africa. Supplied.

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