Retha Cilliers, executive director of the Field Band Foundation for the past 14 years, recently died. PAUL BOEKKOOI befriended her 40 years ago and reflects on the unfolding of a rare musician who transformed herself into an inspiring administrator, touching the lives of thousands.
Retha’s story is no fairy tale. It starts with a boeremeisie with a mind of her own. She soon ripped off the shackles such an image might have had and became a freethinker before the age of 17. She entered the University of Pretoria’s Music Academy as a B Mus student with one aim: “I want to play the bassoon and be a pupil of Jos de Groen.” Her reasons? “It’s the sound of the instrument and its emotional range – from being the humorous clown in the orchestra to its potential to stir the deepest possible emotions,” she enthused.
De Groen wrote in his testimonial a long list of qualities, characterising his pupil’s greatest assets, especially her “great stamina in practising”. I often fetched her during mid-evening at her studio at Tukkies. She had a craving to follow The World at War series on TV.
One could see the exhaustion of those sessions on her face, but once she curled up in front of the TV, she lost herself in how history unfolded and, according to Ugo Paladini, her first husband, found her hero and mentor in character building in the example of Winston Churchill.
During Retha’s (pictured) career, lasting nearly two decades as principal bassoon of the Pact Orchestra, Pretoria, the Bilbao Symphony Orchestra, Spain, and the Natal Philharmonic Orchestra in Durban, she impressed conductors, critics and audiences alike.
Furthering her studies under John Mostard in the Netherlands, she came home to perform some of the most challenging concertos and solo pieces for bassoon by Mozart, Weber, Gershwin, and Jean Francaix, among others.
In May 1991 Retha co-organised an orchestral marathon of 40 hours given by the NPO. Another challenge she under-took after the mid-1990s was to become the orchestra manager of the renamed KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestra.
This daunting experience, she confided, was “like being inside the hornet’s nest,” but prepared her for the position the Field Band Foundation would soon offer her.
This career change was at its early stage “like a reality check which initially overpowered me. Working with the nitty gritty of people from impoverished backgrounds is daunting, but the job had to be done.”
It was through Retha’s efforts that opportunities for a reasonable life opened up for thousands of children. No one before her proved on such a scale that the practising and performing of music could open up so many related skills.
The annual Field Band Championships continue to be, musically speaking, one of the most positive windows to the world-activities South Africa is involved in. Retha’s vision and establishment of a Field Band Academy and her continuous investment in overseas partnerships, is only part of her legacy.
From a joyous 17-year-old up to her struggle with cancer at 57, she led a positive life. Retha loved sharing her success with friends of whom I was one.