South Africa’s Miagi Youth Orchestra is bringing audiences in Europe to their feet, showing both the depth of talent in the country and the power of music to unite people from diverse backgrounds.
Miagi Youth Orchestra. Photos: Facebook.
At a time when the plight of South Africa’s poorly educated and largely unemployable young people constitutes the most serious problem facing the future of our country, I have just had the uplifting experience of seeing a multiracial, multilingual orchestra from that neglected sector of our population bring a cheering, stomping audience of 1700 musical connoisseurs to its feet in one of the world’s most venerable concert halls — the 200-year-old Konserthaus in Berlin.
Not just once but twice, on successive nights last Friday and Saturday. Then again in the northern German city of Hamburg on Sunday and Monday. All of which has set me wondering why we South Africans somehow fail to see solutions to our problems that are right before our eyes.
Coming as it does at the same time as our Protea cricketers have demolished England, with Hashim Amla scoring a record 311 not out, Ernie Els winning the British Open and our young Olympic athletes striving for gold in London, this dazzling success in the cultural field surely tells us something: we South Africans are mad about sport and music, and have a natural talent for both. So let’s tackle our problem of the neglected youth by including music in the school curriculum and build sports fields for every school throughout the country, with appropriate pedagogy to develop those natural talents.
I count myself a lover of all forms of music (and of sport), but I know of hardly anyone outside a small circle of devotees back home who is even aware of the existence of the Miagi Youth Orchestra, which is drawn from all parts of the country but has its base at the State Theatre in Pretoria.
Yet here in Germany, arguably the mecca of great music — the home of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Heidn, Handel, Weber and Wagner — this polyglot group of 88 young instrumentalists, aged 14 to 22 and containing every skin shade the odious old race-classification board ever dreamed of, is causing a sensation.
After their first concert of a tour of Germany at the Ludwigsburg Schlossfeltspele two weeks ago, the Miagi Youth Orchestra received rave reviews in 20 German newspapers.
It has been the same after every one of eight concerts since then.
But last Friday night’s performance in Berlin’s Konserthaus was the big one. Having scored an initial hit in Germany two years ago, the Miagi group was invited back to perform the opening concert at this year’s 20-day International Young Euro Classic festival, which is featuring a selection of the world’s leading youth orchestras. Simply to have been invited was a singular honour for the young South Africans.
They performed under the baton of one of Europe’s leading conductors, Christian Muthspiel of Austria, who told me after a preconcert rehearsal last Friday afternoon that he regarded the young South African musicians as exceptionally talented, with a unique ability to inject a touch of innovation into their classical performances.
"One has to be very careful doing that, but I think they have got the balance just right," said Muthspiel, who happens also to be a jazz musician. He said his time spent with Miagi had been one of the most enjoyable of his career. "Their enthusiasm is incredibly infectious."
But it is more than just their enthusiasm and talent that has captivated me. It is the fellowship, the mutual respect, support and the sharing of a wonderful common creative experience that has bonded this racially and culturally mixed group into a tightly knit unit that I find so uplifting. They eat, drink, live and perform as one. A team that plays together and cares for one another. As one official introducing them said: "South Africa calls itself the world in one country — so here we have the whole world on our stage."
Or, as Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu would doubtless put it: "They are the rainbow nation."
That is the vision behind Miagi. It is the brainchild of a 56-year-old South African musician, Robert Brooks, who left the land of apartheid to spend 21 years studying, living and working as an opera singer in Vienna, then on a visit home in 2001 happened to be invited to help establish a small chamber orchestra. That put him in touch with this wealth of natural musical talent among South Africa’s "born-free" generation and how harmoniously they can perform together.
Brooks is not the only musician to have realised this. Several others have started young music groups around the country. Now Brooks has brought some of these together to form the Miagi orchestra, and has used his European connections to widen their experience and bring them to the attention of the world.
The name itself is an acronym for Brooks’s vision. Miagi stands for "Music is a great investment." Not so much a monetary investment, although there are jobs to be had in the entertainment industry, but more specifically a cultural and social investment. An investment in the new South Africa.
"Music training is a great education," Brooks explains. "It brings the left and right sides of the brain together. It stimulates creativity; it awakens and enlivens young people, gives them self-confidence and develops their personalities. It is also a common language that brings people together."
All this is manifestly evident among these young people with whom I have been mixing and travelling for the past few days. They are not only talented musicians, they are delightful companions, bright, self-confident and bubbling with energy.
The most striking feature of the Miagi Youth Orchestra is the range of its repertoire. Friday night’s programme included pieces by Dvorak, Bernstein, Debussy and Gershwin, plus a symphonic poem, "Out of South Africa", composed by the orchestra’s star performer, 21-year-old Tsepe Totetsi.
Saturday’s programme was an exuberant blast of township jazz that brought the audience of urbane classicists to their feet, rocking and cheering for minutes at a time.
Here, the colourful Totetsi took the podium, a chunky, rough-looking young man from the townships of the East Rand whose trademarks are a pair of orange-rimmed spectacles and a battered black hat jammed on the back of his head.
Totetsi has his own group of 48 musicians who go by the mixed-language name of The New Skool Orchestra. They form part of the Miagi Youth Orchestra but sometimes also play on their own. Totetsi plays half a dozen wind instruments, as well as the piano; Muthspiel describes him as "a really talented jazz composer", and he is an idiosyncratic conductor, who sometimes plays the saxophone as he conducts.
But most captivating of all has been the way these young people have ended their performances here in Berlin. On each occasion, they have left the stage still playing their instruments, threaded their way through the audience, down the broad stairway between the Konserthaus’s Corinthian pillars to the great square below, where they have joined with the crowds and continued playing, singing and dancing for another half an hour around a statue of the revered German poet and philosopher, Friedrich Schiller.
That has epitomised the spirit of this lively young group — and the new country that its members represent.