It is a time for celebration! For the past 25 years, as Chief Executive and Artistic Director, Bongani Tembe has been extremely successful in leading the KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestra – creating a stable and world-class orchestra that has been lauded for its performance excellence in South Africa and Europe.
Bongani Tembe’s passion for music, and his dream to sing professionally, was nearly cut short with a simple question: ‘How can we teach you, if you cannot read music?’ During the early 1980s in South Africa, there were no professional music schools or classes at universities where a young black person could learn to read music or receive vocal training. Fortunately, through hard work, dedication and lots of knocking on doors, Tembe and his long-term partner and now wife, Linda Bukhosini, finally found several private teachers who recognised their talent and were willing to help. Whatever it took to become a singer, Tembe was willing to do it, including walking for five hours in search of his first music teacher, just to get out of his science-orientated work in labs at AECI and Shell.
Tembe and Bukhosini sat all the music exams, beginning from Grade 1, and sometimes sharing the hall, to their embarrassment, with young children. In January 1986, Tembe became one of South Africa’s first professional opera singers, and landed a principal role in the acclaimed Natal Performing Arts Council’s production of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman the following year. This became the country’s first full-length opera to be broadcast live on TV. Germany’s ZDF television also produced a profile on Tembe and his historic performance, and broadcast it in parts of Europe.
When an opportunity to study at the world-renowned Juilliard School in New York came up, Tembe and Bukhosini immediately applied, auditioned and were accepted into the prestigious school. Tembe proved to be an excellent student and a talented tenor singer, eventually graduating with both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s in Music. As a singer, Tembe has performed in many prestigious concert halls around the world, and for many dignitaries, including Her Majesty, Queen Elisabeth II and President Nelson Mandela.
By the time he returned home, South Africa was a democratic country, and Tembe felt strongly that he could contribute to the classical music scene. He started at Unisa, teaching school teachers music in order to reach as many pupils as possible.
Tembe subsequently accepted a position at the KwaZulu-Natal Philarmonic Orchestra (KZN Phil) and soon took on the role of chief executive and artistic director. He has helmed the KZN Phil for 25 years and has been extremely successful in creating a stable, world-class orchestra that has been lauded for its performance excellence in South Africa and Europe. In 2016, Tembe accepted the additional appointment of CEO and artistic director of the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra (JPO). ‘I have always worked in more than one job at a time,’ he explains. Through his work with both orchestras, the classical music scene has been powerfully restored in Johannesburg as well.
One of Tembe’s greatest achievements is, of course, the financial turnaround of the KZN Phil. As CEO and Artistic Director, Tembe has been credited with creating a strong business platform for the orchestra and thus ensuring its survival and stability.
Tembe has received widespread accolades for bringing leading artists and orchestras to South Africa, including Renée Fleming, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Pinchas Zuckerman, Zubin Mehta, Elisabeth Connell, Simon Estes, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and many, many more. Each season brings new international conductors and artists to play in South Africa, and solid ticket sales show the public’s support of ‘their’ orchestras.
Tembe firmly believes that music should be integrated into the learning experience and has implemented a comprehensive education and development programme that has touched the lives of ten of thousands of pupils throughout KZN, and which is being implemented in Gauteng as well.
The programme operates on several fronts: encouraging an appreciation of the arts, forming mutually beneficial links with community arts projects, and, through the national Cadetship Programme, facilitating career paths for young musicians by providing training, performance opportunities and a sound career foundation.
Justice Dikgang Moseneke, Chairperson of the board of the JPO, emphasised when Tembe took over that the work of the JPO will be reaching out to communities to uplift, inspire and educate through the power of music. Beyond bringing world-class talent to the city, a clear goal of the JPO is to attract a new, younger and more diverse audience to this type of music as Tembe has successfully done in KZN.
In addition to his leadership of two of South Africa’s top philharmonic orchestras, Tembe also has extensive international functional leadership experience as the commissioner-general of the SA-UK Seasons in 2014 and 2015 – a cultural exchange partnership between South Africa’s Department of Arts and Culture and the United Kingdom’s British Council. Previously, he oversaw the highly successful France-South Africa Seasons in 2012 and 2013 as commissioner-general, for which he was awarded the insignia of the Officier des Arts et des Lettres by the French government in recognition of his work on the French Season. The Order of the Arts and Letters is awarded to individuals who have distinguished themselves in the domain of artistic or literary creation or for significant contributions they have made in furthering the arts in France and throughout the world. Tembe is the third South African national to receive this status of the award since its inception in 1957.
This recognition was so well deserved, particularly after the special, emotional moment during the South African Season in France when the KZN Phil performed Professor Mzilikazi Khumalo’s Princess Magogo kaDinuzulu on Nelson Mandela’s birthday to a packed French audience in Paris. Even the Eiffel Tower was lit up in the South African colours. Tembe and the KZN Phil really did South Africa proud.
That seems to be Tembe’s secret: with his passion and commitment to music and his dedication to embracing everyone through music, he manages to make every concert special and gets the musicians to give their all to every performance – and the ticket sales reflect it. Congratulations to Bongani Tembe for 25 years of leading the KZN Phil, there have been so many wonderful memories and special experiences along the way, and we are sure there will be many more!
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