Friday, March 19, 2004

Coleridge-Taylor and South Africa: a personal testament...

Written through a growing pile of tissues...My work doesn't often induce tears, but this is an exception.

Philippe Graffin's new CD landed on the doormat yesterday, fresh from Avie. As I mentioned before, it's the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Violin Concerto's world premiere recording plus its perfect companion piece, the Dvorak. Philippe is accompanied by the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Michael Hankinson.

Accompanied by WHAT, you ask?

The JPO was founded in 2000 after the disbanding of the Johannesburg Symphony Orchestra. It represents a desperate struggle to keep classical music alive in South Africa at a time when the country is beset by vast and terrifying problems. Sheer determination on the part of the musicians seems to be behind this phoenix rising from the ashes of a cultural relativism from the state that is understandable but depressing. This is the JPO's first commercial recording. The booklet photos prove that the orchestra is racially mixed; their playing proves that they pull together towards one goal; and Coleridge-Taylor - racially mixed himself and with 'more talent in his little finger' than the rest of his composition class had in their entire bodies, according to his teacher, Stanford - is the perfect figure for this debut.

I got involved with this CD through a set of extraordinary coincidences. Back in August 2002, I was doing some freelance sub-editing for The Strad and on my desk landed an article about the history of the Coleridge-Taylor Violin Concerto, by the American president of the Maud Powell Society, Karen A. Shaffer. It was fascinating, but the editor felt it needed a little tweaking and some extra background. This was entrusted to me and I ended up taking it home to edit and research there. It was published in the November 2002 edition.

A year later, Philippe told me that he was about to record the concerto. That's funny, I said, I've still got an article about it by someone else on my computer, here it is by e-mail.... After another six months, I was thrilled to get a surprise call from Simon Foster asking me to write the booklet notes.

But it's only now that I've seen and heard the finished CD that the significance of this project has really hit me - and its significance for me personally.

My parents were both born in Johannesburg and left in the 1950s. They were both music-lovers, brought together by their passion for music and the lack of such enthusiasm in those around them. My mother once told me that she'd had the opportunity to come to London to study at the Royal Academy of Music and her father refused to let her go. They hated apartheid and also longed for the music, opera and ballet that was available to them in London. Later, when I was growing up, all my parents' friends in London were South African emigres too, many of them exiled for political affiliations, involvement with anti-apartheid campaigns or educational activities and consciousness-raising in the townships. My father, a neuropathologist, later told me he was an outside consultant in the Steve Biko inquest.

My father had studied at the University of the Witwatersrand - which happens to be where Philippe and the JPO made this recording. Dad refused to go back to South Africa for several decades; in his last years, however, after the fall of apartheid, he took to spending the winters in Cape Town. I spent two weeks there with him in 1996 when he was already terminally ill - a time that now provides treasured memories.

That visit was my first since childhood. I've always shied away from South Africa and all it represents for me and my family. A massive sense of guilt at my family background; a revulsion at the country that could invent and keep in place such a horrific system for so long; a hatred of the philistine outlook and lack of cultural appreciation; the introversion of so much of the Jewish community (even before I was 18 my grandfather was on at me about marrying a nice Jewish boy); the rift between my own interests and those of so many of my cousins, who no doubt think I'm barking mad. South Africa is a loaded issue.

So, when Philippe said to me last December, 'Don't you want to go to South Africa?' I could only say that I didn't. Yet any journalist with half a brain would have looked at this project and headed straight for Heathrow. As Philippe says in his introductory note, vast numbers of black children in South Africa are now learning the violin - he's seen this for himself - and he compares it to the ghettoes of Vilna and Warsaw where so many great violinists of the past originated. Many Jewish emigres from Lithuania went to South Africa; did they in some way bring passion for the violin with them and take it into the townships? Among those Lithuanian emigres were my father's grandparents...

This could have been a massive story: the concerto, the orchestra, the kids...and I didn't do it. Now I'm wondering whether anyone else will either. If not, it's tragic.

And yet, I find that I've ended up being a small part of a production that would have represented the fulfilment of my parents' dreams, had they lived to see it. In Johannesburg, where this CD will probably sell well, there are many people who remember them and will recognise our name. Can one dedicate booklet notes in a CD? If so - these are dedicated to the memory of my parents: Myra (1932-1994) and Leo (1928-1996).

That's why I've been having a good howl today.

Philippe - if you read this - thank you.