Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra

Cape Town is lucky to have a full-time symphony orchestra – a group of storytellers, says Mlungisi Mthembu.

Cape Town - There were ghosts under my bed. They were plotting to steal me away to the land of frightened little children as soon as my mom turned off the lights. But with my Superman doll held close to my chest and the door slightly ajar letting in the bathroom light, they never came.

More than 20 years later that fear remains – I suspect those same ghosts are plotting their revenge for my childhood escape.

When you grow up you learn that the only way to deal with your fears is to face up to them. It was with this in mind that I attended my first séance.

Every Thursday evening a group of magicians meet at the City Hall to channel the dead. To my relief there are no naked old women or boiling cauldrons.

There aren’t even any spoken words. The men wear tuxedos and the women are beautifully made-up and dressed in black. Some of the magicians scrape horses’ tails over hollow pieces of wood of different sizes.

Some blow into long wooden tubes. Others stick shiny plumbing systems to their lips. And others, relegated to the back row, violently bang blunt objects together.

Their devotees clap, cheer and whistle as the lead magician Maestro Martin Panteleev enters the stage holding his white magic wand.

After the customary bow, the maestro turns his back and the ghost of composer Dmitri Shostakovich is channelled through the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra.

Shostakovich composed much of his music under Stalin’s rule in Soviet Russia.

After a run-in with the powers that be for writing music that exposed the harsh conditions in Russia he wrote his fifth, and arguably most popular, symphony in 1937 to “please” his critics.

Shostakovich died in 1975, but his story lives on in a language accessible to all – the language of music.

Guided by the maestro’s magic wand the Cape Philharmonic strings take us back to Soviet Russia. The symphony starts with a dark and militaristic call-and-response theme between the lower and higher strings.

The anger is now and then pacified by the sombre sound of the horn. This is again overturned by the militaristic theme now transferred to the percussion and trumpet sections.

As the tempo increases, the low brass adds urgency and desperation as the theme descends into a full march.

Here I can imagine an emotionless army marching down the streets of Soviet Russia.

It is in the slow third movement, however, where Shostakovich shows his mastery and sleight-of-hand brilliance.

His melancholic song pulls on the heart strings and shows the sadness and hopelessness of the poor – an act of defying the government dictatorship which earlier threatened to end his music career.

To me, seated behind the orchestra in the cheap seats, the display of emotion on the conductor’s face is something to behold.

The final movement begins with a heavy crescendo leading into a bright and powerful theme with the brass in unison.

The militant anger seen in the first movement is now transformed into hope. Perhaps the people were protesting and taking back their pride and dignity.

The orchestra unites to conclude the symphony with bright colourful chords at full volume.

Shostakovich would have been happy with how his story was told on Thursday, February 20.

Cape Town is lucky to have a full-time symphony orchestra – a group of storytellers.

They take the audience on a journey into other countries and times gone by.

They offer a vicarious experience of the feelings and thoughts of composers.

A life in the arts will always be challenging to maintain, especially in our temperamental economic climate.

Orchestras and opera houses the world over are struggling to keep the music going as funding dries up. The Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra has recently folded because of lack of funds.

Musicians who spent thousands of hours in practice rooms perfecting their craft are now without jobs. The orchestra has concerts sporadically, but nothing like it used to have.

Some musicians have taken teaching jobs and others have formed smaller groups. The KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic has managed to keep its finances healthy for some time.

The Cape Philharmonic was rescued from the brink of collapse by a funding injection not too long ago. But how long will that last?

Some argue that unlike food, water and shelter, people can survive without music. They say funds should rather be directed to creating employment.

Some say if music decided to pack its bags and move to a parallel universe, our world would continue. But what kind of world would that be?

Maybe the séance fried my brain, but I like to think music is one of life’s necessities. Monday morning is always easier to handle after singing in the shower.

And after listening to Shostakovich’s story maybe I’ll finally have the courage to turn off the lights at night.

* Mlungisi Mthembu is a sub- editor at Independent Newspapers in Cape Town.

Cape Argus