British conductor Steve Dummer thrills in Nairobi

Steve Dummer conducting the Nairobi Orchestra.
Steve Dummer conducting the Nairobi Orchestra.

The founder of 'talkochestra' concept — a method of using narratives and anecdotes in concerts — performed at the Braeburn theatre last weekend

Kenya might soon become the undisputed hub of classical music in sub Saharan Africa with a burgeoning orchestra culture that is raising awareness to new heights.

For nearly a half a century, Nairobi Orchestra was the only of its kind in Kenya but the past decade has seen the arrival of the Safaricom Orchestra and the Youth Orchestra, a clear testimony of the growth in this music genre.

“Unlike in the past when the only orchestra was dominated by expatriates or Kenyans of caucasian extraction, I am seeing many more Kenyans which provides a solid foundation in this vein," said visiting British conductor Steve Dummer.

He is the conductor of the Horsham Symphony Orchestra in London, which is reputably one of the best amateur orchestras in England. He was in the country to conduct the Nairobi Orchestra on two concerts last weekend at the Braeburn theatre.

It was his second visit to Kenya and is already looking forward to another one to harness the links made over the past two encounters with Kenyan classical music fraternity. “I have had a great time meeting young players and hope to grow the collaboration," Dummer said.

An affable personality, he is noted as the pioneer of the concept of 'talkochestra', which he describes as a method of using narratives and anecdotes in concerts as motivation for new and old fans who need to enhance their interest in the concerts and classical music in general.

“It is an interactive approach that has generated new audiences through direct communication between the conductor and the audience in concerts," Dummer said.

On this second visit to Kenya, he was impressed by the enthusiasm for this genre — previously banished as a colonial relic — by young native Kenyans.

However, he would like to see improved quality of teaching and increase of music teachers to attend to the growing need.

On choice of instruments, he would like to see greater variety of instrument learning to embrace the diversity of instruments played in local orchestras.

"There is a strong preference for the clarinet and violins and I would like young students to take up the more unfamiliar instruments such as Bassoon and Oboe, which I feel are being neglected," Dummer said.

However, his long term passion is to see Kenya music being performed by local orchestras so as to infuse an authentic country character in its repertoire. “I am hoping to develop twinning of my orchestra in London with the Nairobi Orchestra for mutual benefit," said Dummer.

Historically, orchestras have been associated with European classical music but more are tapping into their own folk music to expand their repertoire and create relevance to attract new audiences.

Among the best examples of African compositions was in the late 1990s when the piece Dance of the Gazelles by Europe-based Congolese composer Ray Lema was widely performed by European Orchestras.

It was a narrative of the nervousness suffered by gazelles in the wild in the face of predators which he applied to depict the discomfort of African immigrants living in hostile environments abroad.

In Kenya, the Youth Orchestra led by Elizabeth Njoroge has made good efforts to include original Kenya compositions and this is an ongoing project.

However, Dummer concedes that there are not that many African composers paying attention to this genre of music.

He affirms the need for uniqueness of orchestras if they are to sustain interest in a changing world.

He notes a growing concern at the declining audience for orchestras in Western Europe where they originated and many conductors now appreciate the need to embrace other forms of music as a means to attract new audience.

By contrast, classical music has found an enthusiastic following in the Far East Asia — especially in China — where many young aspiring musicians have taken up piano learning.

The need for a paradigm shift is embraced in Western Europe as a means to sustain the classical music as both a vital tool in music learning and as entertainment. However, it has been slow but the fruits are showing.

Among the most noted initiatives for change was in the early 1990s, when Conductor Zubin Mehta stunned the classical music scene by taking the Philadelphia Philharmonic Orchestra to the streets in the US giving it unprecedented exposure.

Other projects have been organised to tap youth audience to concerts and there has been daring initiatives with commendable results.

More recently, the Brooklyn Symphony Orchestra of US has incorporated hip hop artistes in its performance which has helped to draw attention to the current youth generation to its concerts.

There is also the story of the two Polish classical players under the banner of Two Cellos who performed a version of the late Michael Jackson’s hit Smooth Criminal to very good effect.

Said Dummer: “The resounding success of this adaptation by the two classical musicians saw a deluge of young musicians taking up the cello."

He however regrets that classical music is still widely perceived as a fashion accessory for the rich while in the real sense it is music for all.

“The class tagging has distorted the character of the genre and yet the cost of tickets to concerts is much lower than to a British league match which is considered recreation for the working class," he said.

Dummer regrets the trend, saying that it has balkanised the music as a “class thing fencing off a huge generation which has a lot to benefit from playing in orchestras and expanding the knowledge of music".

Socially, he sees an orchestra as the best way to promote teamwork as it involves getting sometimes up to 100 people to play the same tune and enjoy the emotional and psychological connectivity that generates a good show.

He said that there are studies showing that kids who take up classical music develop high sense of self control and are unlikely to fall prey to social vices such as drug abuse, crime and delinquency.

There is also the discipline it instills in the players and unlike in pop music where pieces are five minutes long, a classical piece can be as long an hour and this requires concentration and in effect more discipline.

“Unlike in football where one team plays to beat another, it's all harmony in an orchestra and there is nobody to beat and I think that objective of good for good is a perfect method of bonding for the players and the audience — there's no antagonistic ending and everybody is a winner," said Dummer.

He is particularly drawn by the sense of equality in an orchestra where a player of a four note triangle is as important as the violinist playing hundreds of notes and all work as equals to compliment the entire performance.

Admittedly, there is an element of bigotry among the classical music cognoscenti who may frown up to the pop music as unschooled. Dummer wishes people would break music barriers and appreciate the role each genre plays in the art.

For classical musicians, he notes a tendency to snub pop music owing to its simplistic nature and structure.

Says Dummer: “I can almost predict how the song will go and for a person who has invested so much to learn an instrument, the mundane lines in pop music can frustrate a player."

There is also the opposite view advanced from pop music that classical music is “uncool” and is therefore rejected on those grounds by young urbanites that are drawn to style.

But efforts on both sides have shown great results and chasms are gradually being broken to bridge the gaps.

Internationally, the adaptation by renowned American conductor Phillip Glass of the song Hero by the 1960s rock n roll idol David Bowie was a revelation that drew acclaim from audiences from both classical and rock music.

On imagery, the gregarious British violinist Nigel Kennedy broke that uncool barrier with his Four Seasons which took his music to the youthful audience who overwhelmingly embraced his rock n roll image on a classical music outing.

“I had occasion to perform with Nigel and he is truly fascinating with his gimmicks and cool image," said Dummer.

However economics have also played havoc on the classical music and the high cost of maintaining professional orchestras has been of concern. It is now generally accepted that many of them might be phased out leaving it to amateur orchestras where musicians play purely for their passion of the art.

He also sees a challenge to the whole concept of music tuition that has centred on the European classical music and feels that institutions ought to seek ways to develop all round curriculums that incorporate other music cultures.

This is particularly so on notation methodology which is only appropriate for classical music and other forms seem complicated when put down on music score. ”The formula of music notation was created specifically for classical music and cannot be applied to other forms with the same precision and there is need to develop it further," said Dummer.

The conductor is clearly for open-mindedness in music expression. He advocates diversity and urges musicians to be versatile in order to survive in the competitive industry.

“There is nothing demeaning about a classical musician playing a pop piece or vice versa and all works for the common good. It’s a matter of discipline and broad appreciation of the art and all is possible," said Dummer.

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