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The South African orchestra fronts talented young musicians from around the countryImage: presse

A Rare Musical Treat as South Africa Meets Beethoven

Kate Bowen
September 9, 2006

Zulu songs, Beethoven's Fifth and a world premiere all in one concert? Deutsche Welle and the Beethoven Festival have invited South Africa's best young musicians to Germany. Their concert Saturday will be broadcast live.


Beethoven meets Russia and South Africa -- in Germany? It might sound like a strange combination, but that's exactly what the city of Bonn will be witnessing on Saturday, Sept. 9.

The musicians from the South African National Youth Orchestra (SANYO) arrived this week in Bonn and are tuning up for their much awaited performance Saturday under the direction of conductor Conrad van Alphen.

The orchestra's diverse program, including Beethoven's famed Fifth Symphony, a new work composed by Hans Huyssen and commissioned by Deutsche Welle, and a set of eight songs by a Zulu princess, will be broadcast live to the musicians' home country.

It doesn't matter that the festival's actual theme this year is "Rossija." After all, SANYO is no stranger to cultural diversity.

Music breaks down barriers

South African National Youth Orchestra Komponist un Dirigent Hans Huyssen Quelle: Beethovenfest
Huyssen spent time teaching the orchestra his pieceImage: presse

"We try to incorporate as many different cultures as possible in our organization," said SANYO's manager Faan Malan. There are 11 languages and numerous different cultures in South Africa and the youth orchestra tries to use music as a means of unification, he added.

The orchestra directors hold country-wide auditions to select around 80 of the best musicians each year. They're also involved in numerous initiatives that promote music education in traditionally disadvantaged communities and aim to make the orchestra "elite" only in the musical -- not the social -- sense.

"About 20 percent of the orchestra members come from disadvantaged backgrounds," said Malan.

D for diversity -- of people and flowers

Fostering cultural diversity in a country once split by apartheid is the kernel of Hans Huyssen's new work "Proteus Variations." The South African born composer chose the protea, his country's national flower, as a symbol for the rich variety of both plants and cultures there.

"On one hand, the work is fully African because it was written in Africa and is performed by an African orchestra, but SANYO is a Western orchestra and plays Western music in a Western style. There are certainly African elements in the piece, but they have been 'translated' for a Western audience," said Huyssen, humming a few of the native melodies he integrated into the work.

Huyssen has German grandparents and studied cello and composition in both Europe and Africa. He has also immersed himself in African music and transcribed a great deal of it.

Festival breaks new ground with African guests

Südafrika Nationalblume Südafrikas Protea
Huyssen took South Africa's national flower as a symbol for cultural diversityImage: picture-alliance / dpa

Huyssen's work may incorporate a few African elements, but another piece on Saturday's program will be performed in an African language -- Zulu.

The eight "Princess Magogo Songs" were composed by one of Africa's most well-known composers, Princess Magogo (1900-1984), who was the daughter of the Zulu king Dinuzulu.

"It is the first time that an orchestra from Africa has been our guest here and I hope that it is a beginning that will continue to develop," said the director of the Beethoven Festival, Ilona Schmiel.

She attributed the political element of the project to the fact that it is under the aegis of German President Horst Köhler.

Cultural exchange will also be taking place beyond the stage. The young musicians are staying in Bonn with host families before they continue on to Berlin for a workshop with renowned conductor Herbert Blomstedt at the Berlin Philharmonic.

Live broadcast to South Africa

Each year, Deutsche Welle sponsors a young orchestra during the Beethoven Festival and commissions a work by a composer from that country. Since its initiation in 2001, musicians from Kiev, Istanbul, Tbilisi, Beijing, and Krakow have participated in the project.

SANYO's concert, which will be performed Saturday at 8:00 p.m. CET in Bonn's Beethovenhalle, can be heard live in South Africa on "Classic FM" radio.

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