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‘Never waste a crisis’ | A Q&A with Bongani Tembe on the JPO Virtual Spring Symphony Season

From heartfelt dedications to South Africa’s healthcare workers, to pulling off the country’s debut virtual Symphony Season, the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra (JPO) has been harnessing the talent and commitment of its musicians to help bring positivity and exceptional music to audiences during the Covid-19 pandemic.
     In light of the start of their Virtual Spring Symphony Season, we caught up with CEO and artistic director of the JPO and the KwaZulu-Natal philharmonic orchestra Bongani Tembe to talk about the highs and lows of making music during a global pandemic, as well as the blockbuster programme they’ve put together for their online symphony season.

Creative Feel: Tell us a bit more about the Virtual Spring Symphony Season. How did it come about and how has it been going so far?
Bongani Tembe: As you know, the world is continuing to go through a tough time right now, because of the Covid-19 pandemic and the various restrictions put in place as a result. Every sector of society has been affected and the performing arts is no exception. We’ve been looking at creative ways to stay in touch with music lovers, subscribers, and audiences all year and we’ve been doing things such as videos and virtual performances since about April. Some of them have even gone viral and reached around the world. So, we thought why not do a fully-fledged virtual symphony season of four weeks? We’ve recorded all of the performances and we started on the 11 November. Every Wednesday we’ll be launching a new programme for audiences.    

CF: How does an orchestra perform virtually?
BT: The season was filmed at the Linder Auditorium in Johannesburg. Musicians observed social distancing between them and there was no audience to perform to, but as they always do, they took it very seriously. They wore their full concert attire, and treated it just like a regular symphony concert. Even though the audience was not there, the intensity and the passion of their playing is palpable.  

CF: What are some of the challenges of performing without an audience?
BT: It’s always nice to have the audience there because nothing can replace a live, physical symphony concert or musical event, or even a sporting event for that matter. Watching things like rugby or soccer matches on television are not the same as being in the stadium and feeling the intensity and the atmosphere. Likewise, musicians and artists give energy to an audience, but they also receive energy from the audience, so it really becomes a mutual exercise and that can be challenging when you don’t have an audience to perform to. But as I said, the musicians continue to give it their all, and you can sense that energy on screen and from the comfort of your home. It’s not the same, but it’s the closest we can get to providing audiences with music during these times.

Continue reading our Q&A with Bongani Tembe.

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