Commemoration of a clever mind, tragic life

Music | 19 October 2015
Christina McEwan

MORAL outrage makes for good music. When South African composer Bongani Ndodana-Breen heard the poem Die Kind by Afrikaans poet Ingrid Jonker read by Nelson Mandela in his inaugural address to parliament, he knew that this would be the subject of a composition. It took a time in coming, as Ndodana-Breen was working on other parts of his journey of South African exploration: Winnie, the Opera; Hani; the Freedom Charter and a credo were all to come before he settled down to this one.

Three orchestral songs on poems by Ingrid Jonker, who took her own life exactly 50 years ago, will be premiered by the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra in the opening concert of the spring season on Thursday. Goitsemang Lehoybe will be the soprano soloist.

“Ingrid Jonker was full of compassion and humanity, and she was outraged by the unnecessary death of a child in the times of apartheid. I wanted to commemorate a clever mind and a tragic life which can offer a common humanity and help make sense of post-reconciliation times where people’s attitudes are fractured and more discordant than ever,” he says. The other two poems he has chosen are Met Hulle is Ek, which is about moral hypocrisy of a God-fearing apartheid society and Ek Herhaal Jou, a poem which offers a racier view of the world. Jonker wrote some very passionate poetry,” he notes!

He approached the CPO earlier this year, and immediately got the attention of CEO Louis Heyneman. Programming it with other large-scale works meant that Ndodana-Breen could use large orchestral forces, so the sound will be full.

Ndodana-Breen is also working on a documentary which will record the composition’s steps including rehearsal and performance.

He’s a colourful man, known for not pulling punches in dinner-party conversations, or arguing furiously for what he wants. That has served him well. Based for some years in Canada before he came home, he managed to get funding for several projects, including what he now sees as a workshopping of Winnie.

“When we performed it in Pretoria, it was a whole new opera, a spectacular success, and when Winnie Mandela herself appeared on stage the audience sang to her. It’s not often you have an audience joining in an opera.”

Life has been good to him, he says. “There are not many composers who have a new orchestral piece performed virtually each year”. Apart from the operas, his piano concerto was commissioned by the Mozart Festival and performed by Florian Uhlig and the Johannesburg Festival Orchestra with Richard Cock in 2013. He is getting traction, he says, for a new viola concerto for the Zimbabwean /Japanese violist Nokuthula Ngwenyama. He played the viola so badly, he says, he wants to make amends. “The violin is the prima donna, but the viola is the mature contralto, the smooth cognac.” The idea is to get a consortium of orchestras together to commission it.

Now 40, his fame extends far beyond South African or Canadian borders, where he spent many years. In 1998, he was the youngest composer to win the prestigious Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Music. (He was also named one of the Mail and Guardians 200 Young South Africans of 2011.) The year before that, he moved overseas because he had received a huge commission from Africa Exchange, a program of 651 Arts in New York funded by the Ford Foundation to work with the IndianapolisChamber Orchestra.

The next step was Chicago, where he started Ensemble Noir, which evolved Musica Noir, and then he moved to Toronto, where he was literally stunned by the sense of community and support its residents had for the arts at the time.

Born in Queenstown and educated in Grahamstown at St Andrews and Rhodes (and Stellenbosch), Ndodana-Breen has returned to his eastern Cape roots to complete his PhD on his portfolio and a thesis to contextualise the body of work. His body of work is large – five operas, seven pieces for orchestra, seven choral works, and a couple of dozen pieces for solo instrument and chamber music. So writing the 25 000 word thesis won’t be easy. It’s all very radical, he says, denouncing the pre-1994 cultural policy and naming some names…. it should make interesting reading!

Perry So conducts the concert which includes the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto no 2 in E-minor performed by Pallavi Mahidhara and the Symphony no 7 in C-sharp minor by Prokofiev.