Musicians in European orchestras complain bitterly about the mingy, spoilt-for-choice audiences that turn up to hear them. I went to a harpsichord concert in Italy once where three of us made up the audience in a large medieval church.
Turn to Harare, in the chapel of Arundel School on September 14 where the Harare Chamber Orchestra played several baroque works. The auditorium was four-fifths full. After each piece the audience delivered a rousing round of applause. Many stood and clapped to honour the musicians. “Bravo, bravo” they cheered.
“It happens all the time,” said Mike Peto, who has been playing the viola for the HCO since 1979 when he was 15. “People are so starved of music. But they are also quite discerning. You get a great deal of enjoyment, the audiences make you want to prepare for the next concert.”
The 24-member orchestra under the baton of veteran Corrado Trinci and with musicians aged from 16 to 60 has played five concerts since its revival in March last year after a 10-year hiatus, to the delight of Harare classical music lovers.
It is run almost singlehanded by Peto, without a committee. It charges nothing for entry to concerts, and relies on donations. It’s a low-budget operation, earning enough to pay for the tuning of the piano and the fuel of a few musicians who drive up from Bulawayo to play (the Bulawayo Philharmonic Orchestra shut down shortly after the HCO, but hasn’t managed to revive).
The Salisbury Municipal Orchestra started in 1959 with up to 70 musicians, with a stipend from the city council which also paid the salary of the conductor. It got a jolt with UDI in 1965, when a significant chunk of its musicians left the country.
The orchestra became the Harare City Orchestra at independence in 1980, but the political change saw it shrink again. It took its biggest hit between 1997 and 2000 with the country’s first major economic shocks, followed by the instability from the start of the farm invasions.
“In 2003 it got to the stage where it was not possible to carry on,” said Peto. The musicians had dwindled to 20. “We had tried to get a couple of concerts going and realised it wasn’t working.”
But in the last couple of years, there was a noticeable re-influx of mostly young Zimbabweans who had left a decade earlier. Among them, Peto recognised several musicians and by early last year there were enough musicians to start again. The orchestra became the Harare Chamber Orchestra, due its small size, and performed its first concert in that March.
“Right now we have enough people,” said Peto. “There is a bunch of youngsters who have progressed to the point where they can play at a very high standard. Next year three of them are going to university. But we have decided we will carry on, no matter what. Even if we go down to a quartet, we will try. As long as we have four good players.
“The biggest problem now is that there are not enough experienced teachers. There is a handful that teach violin, flute, clarinet, trumpet, but there are just not enough of them.”
Young players make up a significant part of the orchestra. The timpanist is a 16-year-old and last year at the Christmas concert the lead violin was played by a 15-year-old. At the September concert, two high school pupils played a complex Vivaldi cello duet, and another two performed a long flute duet of a piece composed by King Frederick the Great of Prussia.
Their last concert of the year will be at the St John’s College Christmas Carol service on November 30. I would get there early.
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