Playing to seekers of excellence, African and European

mozart fest

Can Africans call Mozart one of their own? The flourishing of European classical music in South Africa, which still struggles to clarify its African identity, poses challenges to both its European and African roots. In the picture, the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival brings in capacity audiences, mostly white, at Johannesburg’s Linder auditorium

IS EUROCENTRICITY still a proverbial four-letter word in today’s South Africa? After the coming of democracy in 1994 there was political and social pressure to be more Afrocentric, to counter eons of brutal white and colonial rule that had emanated from Europe and persecuted Africa’s people.

But the society has matured and become less threatened by different ways people may identify themselves, whether ‘African’, ‘European’ or something in between.

Anyone parachuting into the huge Linder Auditorium on Wits university campus on Saturday to hear Italian pianist Mariangela Vacatello perform works by European composers including Mozart, might have thought it was a wholly European event. The 1,000 seat-plus auditorium was packed to the rafters, but noticeable was that the audience was almost exclusively middle-aged and white: hardly a black face was to be seen aside from waiters serving in the restaurant. Superficially, it looked like the 1960s, when apartheid was alive.

Of course, in those days there was a curfew for black people in white areas and they could not have attended. They had to keep to places such as Soweto, and carry a ‘pass’ signed by their white employer, to be in a white area.

Saturday’s performance left the audience breathless and demanding more. After a standing ovation Vacatello gave several encores, the last ending with Mozart’s lively Rondo alla Turca, with a jazz beat. She had come to South Africa under the auspices of the Johannesburg Musical Society, a more-than 100-year old institution currently managed by Avril Rubenstein, in partnership with Richard Cock’s Johannesburg International Mozart Festival (JIMF).

On Sunday, the Linder, which has, over the years, been host to significant luminaries such as Pinchas Zuckerman, saw a grand performance of the Mozart Requiem by the Johannesburg Festival Orchestra and the Symphony Choir of Johannesburg, programmed by JIMF and conducted by Richard Cock. There was not an empty seat and again, an almost exclusively white audience. They were there not because they were white, or because Mozart was European, but because that was the kind of music they love.

The dichotomy seems crude. And it is. There are many black lovers of European classical music in this country, as there is a growing interest in opera by black practitioners. But overwhelmingly, there is disproportion in audiences such as that of the Mozart Festival.

Does the skewed make-up of audiences indicate that South Africa’s non-racial project has failed? In this racially obsessed country, the likes of black populist politicians like Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema question the place of whites in the country. Showcasing these so-called ‘European’ works could be interpreted by mischievous politicians as a statement that whites are not ‘African’, but European and not deserving of African status.

What place does this divisive argument have in the new South Africa, which is confused with identity issues and sees its rainbow nation dream wither? With elections coming soon, racist rhetoric will intensify as parties with a ‘white’ image such as the Democratic Alliance, compete against parties with a ‘black’ image, such as the African National Congress and EFF. Malema knows how to ride that wave, his party attracts votes through racial bombast. But in the broad sense, most people no longer regard it as sinful, politically or artistically, to be Eurocentric.

Too often in the recent past, art has received accolades not because of its quality, but its maker’s identity. This is dangerous and misleading. Mozart may have been born in Europe some 260-odd years ago. He may have been born white-skinned and male. But these are not the reasons he is loved. He is loved because of the brilliance of his work.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za 

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