A centenary encore: Cape Philharmonic Orchestra (CPO)

The Cape Philharmonic Orchestra performing in Greenmarket square as part of the Infecting the City 2014. Picture Henk Kruger/Cape Argus

The Cape Philharmonic Orchestra performing in Greenmarket square as part of the Infecting the City 2014. Picture Henk Kruger/Cape Argus

IT WAS February 1914, and the world was oblivious to the fact that it would soon be caught up in the drama and despair of its first world war. In Cape Town, a group of 14 musicians had formed a fledgling orchestra. Little did they know that it would spread its wings wide and 100 years later would still be bringing music to the people of the Mother City and across the world.

Today the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra (CPO) is arguably the most multi-functional and active symphony orchestra on the African
continent and has made its mark in the classical symphonic music community across the world.

Formerly the Cape Town Municipal Orchestra, it gave its inaugural
concert on February 28. In those days a reserved seat in the balcony, bays or front of the Cape Town City Hall cost a shilling. Today, a balcony seat will set you back R195.
“The name has changed over the years but there hasn’t been any other orchestra in Africa like it. It’s unique and something to treasure that belongs to Cape Town,” says CPO chief executive Louis Heyneman.

With 45 full-time members, the CPO has played in several acclaimed venues across the word. It has been led by respected
conductors such as Igor Stravinsky and collaborated with leading international and local artists.

While classical symphonic music is its chosen repertoire, the CPO
also plays pop and rock, and has collaborated with South African artists from various music genres, such as jazz maestro Hugh Masekela and singer Yvonne Chaka Chaka. “We are not an elite white orchestra that just plays music of white, dead composers,” says Heyneman.

“To keep up, we had to become a multifunctional orchestra and to survive we had to expand to become an orchestra for the people.”

The CPO has played in several sought-after venues across the world, such as Buckingham Palace in London in 1925. In
2000, under the direction of principal conductor Bernhard Gueller, the orchestra performed at the International Festival of Music on Spain’s Canary Islands. It has toured countries such as the UK, the US, and Taiwan. Through its outreach projects, young people are mentored by established musicians and the CPO has two youth orchestras, the Cape Philharmonic Youth Orchestra and the Youth
Wind Ensemble, which collaborated with pantsula dance group Pantsul’amagenge at the weekend as part of the Infecting the City festival.
“But we still have a long way to go as in most countries orchestras are part of the fabric of all big cities,” says Heyneman.

“We have some of the greatest musicians and it’s a great honour to know we are good enough to tour and sell out in a European
country…. But it’s difficult to understand that while in other countries we are acknowledged and celebrated, in Cape Town we are battling to keep the orchestra sustainable.” While the CPO has stayed afloat financially for 100 years, they soon will have to devise a sustainable financial model or face the possibility of ceasing to exist.
“It will be disastrous if one of the longest running orchestras has to
shut down. Over the years we have made a huge contribution to Cape Town’s cultural history and we have some of the best musicians in the country, but we have to be realist about it,” says Heyneman.

The Cape Philharmonic Orchestra performing in Greenmarket square as part of the Infecting the City 2014. Picture Henk Kruger/Cape Argus

The Cape Philharmonic Orchestra performing in Greenmarket square as part of the Infecting the City 2014. Picture Henk Kruger/Cape Argus

The annual budget for 45 fulltime musicians is about R25 million.
Funded in full by the Cape City Council until 1987 and then partly
for the next 10 years, the CPO is now financially supported by the
Western Cape government and relies on state sponsorship such as the National Lottery. It also supports itself through ticket sales and corporate sponsorship.
“We are currently in negotiations with the City as they have not supported us as they should. The Western Cape (government) are on board, but they can’t be the only people at the party. We need a healthy mix of public, government and corporate funding,” says Heyneman.

●As part of its centenary celebrations, the CPO will host concerts
across the city this year. A coffee table book is due, and the orchestra will tour the UK with Cape Town Opera in July. Visit http://www.cpo.org.za

This story was first published in the Cape Argus newspaper (March 17 2014) 

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