Johannesburg - Wits University is celebrating 100 years since it officially opened its doors on a musical note with the opening of its new state-of-the-art music hall.
The Wits Chris Seabrooke Music Hall was enabled by its namesake, businessman and Wits alumnus Chris Seabrooke, and is part of the university’s centenary festivities.
The opening of Johannesburg’s first only purpose-built live music hall with modern acoustic design also comes at a time when the country and world at large attempts to emerge from the devastating Covid-19 pandemic, an era when musicians and entertainers were hard hit.
The music hall hosted its first event on Thursday to invited guests, at a centenary event at the university, who were serenaded by the performances of associate professors Malcolm Nay on the piano and Carlo Mombelli on bass, as well as lecturer and doctoral candidate Chantal Willie-Petersen.
During the gathering, Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Wits, said that the opening of the innovative music hall was a proud moment for the tertiary institution.
“It is a singular honour for me to be here with all of you as we gather to celebrate 100 years of one of South African history’s true giants – the University of the Witwatersrand – and we’re doing this with the opening of this magnificent music hall, set amidst a booming Braamfontein,” he said at the event.
Meanwhile, Seabrooke also expressed his pride in having his name attached to the music hall.
“I’m absolutely delighted with the outcome. I think it’s beautiful, the acoustics are great, and I know that a lot of people coming through Wits will get tremendous value from this being in place.”
Head of the Wits School of Arts, Dr René Smith, said the opening of the music hall came at the perfect time.
“We are delighted to open the Wits Chris Seabrooke Music Hall as the University launches its centenary campaign and after almost two years of lockdown when the arts have been amongst the hardest hit during the pandemic.”
She added that the hall’s foyer is a converted heritage building and that it is built upon a patch of ivy-entangled pavement where Joburg’s first gold miners formerly lived.
Apart from its cultural and historical significance, the Wits Chris Seabrooke Music Hall has one-of-a-kind acoustics and was designed specifically for musical performances.
While there are several venues in Johannesburg that can accommodate both staged and musical performances, the Wits music hall is the only space of any size in the city that is exclusively designed to optimise live musical sound with modern acoustic design.
“The music hall features acoustic treatment of the highest quality and is suitable for a range of musical genres – from acoustic music and electrified performances to chamber music and even minimal orchestra,” said Dr Donato Somma, Head of Wits Music.
Wits Music was established in 1921 as the School of Music at the University College of Johannesburg, which ultimately became Wits University, and Somma said it has not been without its challenges.
“It is always a tough sell to convince people that music training is a resource-intensive, time-intensive process; that creativity needs resources to grow and flourish,” she said.
“The university's support for us as a department within the Wits School of Arts has allowed generations of students and wonderful teachers to learn the craft of music.”
Wits Chris Seabrooke Music Hall also seeks to revive the Braamfontein arts scene.
Dean of the Faculty of Humanities at Wits, Professor Garth Stevens, explained that the university is as much a part of Joburg’s history as gold mining is.
“The university’s Braamfontein Campus is part of the City’s cultural arc that spans Constitution Hill, via the Nelson Mandela Bridge, to Newtown,” he said.
“It is an anchor in this cultural precinct as it is home to the Wits Art Museum, the Origins Centre, the Wits Theatre Complex, the Planetarium and a host of other museums and cultural amenities.
Stevens said that their music hall also seeks to “bring Wits a step closer to realising the arts precinct and ‘cultural arc’ that is an important part of the revival of Braamfontein where the University has been entrenched for a century.”
During Wits’ centenary year and beyond, the public can enjoy the return of the free lunch hour concerts, now at the music hall, where Wits Music students practice performing. Postgraduate recitals in jazz and classical music and a round of public evening concerts are also in the pipeline.
“During the day, the music hall serves as a teaching venue for performance students and will also be used for composition recitals and ensemble classes. We are even hosting some of our Drama colleagues in our rehearsal venues this year,” Somma said.
“We’re now fundraising for the next phase, which is to build performance, practice and teaching venues so that Wits Music students can continue to benefit from an African and world-class music education.”