There were hints last week that the JPO may be in financial difficulties were evident last week - half full concert hall, the cancellation of the guest conductor, the change in an earlier published program due to the costs associated with a particular piece and a downsized orchestra itself during the performance.
Last night's concert started with a somber message, on the extent of the orchestra's financial distress. The orchestra had recently applied for business rescue; and the musicians hadn't been paid for 2 months. There is some hope for rescue; especially if the Lotto funding from previous few years is continued. In a tough economic climate, money is scarce, and thus the decline of audience numbers or donation support is somewhat understandable.
There is however a point to be made, on whether art should be sponsored purely for its form. Afterall, JPO has seemingly not been very successful in attracting a sustainable audience in Gauteng; and it can be argued that there are more popular artistic endeavors that should be supported in its place. And I would also argue that there are some challenges in the current operation of the JPO.
For example, a number of colleagues and friends are avid listeners to classical music. But they do not know when the concerts are on and some do not even know about the existence of the JPO itself. This is a failure of marketing; and this is something that needs to be addressed.
Next is the program itself. The bulk of the audience is retired, old people. The musical choices, while great classical pieces are hardly welcoming to a new, younger audience member. The program notes are written for the aficionado not someone who wants to experience a new art form. The atmosphere is stuffy, and although the people are friendly and welcoming - it is hardly the hip and happening event in town! I think there needs to be a greater variety and mix in the music itself - perhaps a few more contemporary orchestral music pieces - from movies or even pop/rock music. This does not mean that the classical pieces should disappear - just that there should be a lot more variety - something the Buskaid concerts have managed to do very well!
That said, the JPO is a good orchestra, an institution that deserves to be protected. Last night's concert was a perfect showcase of their skill and despite the somber nature of the announcement (and the music itself); it was one of the best programs I have attended.
The first piece of the evening was Sibelius' En Saga; which is a beautiful piece of music; although quite somber and even dark in places. In many respect it was a fitting start after the announcement, a sense of melancholy and sadness - but one showcasing impressive skill. The second piece, starring local piano maestro Ben Schoeman (another change in the prorgam due to the financial considerations, the visiting pianist from the USA did not perform), was Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. It is one of my favourite piano pieces - a showcase of piano and orchestra; and it was a masterful performance by both! Tchaikovsky's last symphony, No.6 (Pathétique), rounded off the evening. It was in many respects the encapsulation of the evening - a somber beginning, a joyous and rapturous middle, with a very dark and somber end.
The orchestra is a very large and expensive musical form - not only because of the skill and training required to form one; but the number of people required to participate and perform. It remains one of the pinnacles of musical performances; and the JPO is a good orchestra that is worth preserving. And I hope it does - but it will need to change in both how it markets itself; and evolve in the music it performs.