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​​Sara Gon - the JPO's secret weapon
   Sara Gon, MD of the JPO

With a lawyer and former judge at the helm, the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra has gone from strength to strength, and Sara Gon is not resting on her laurels just yet. There is much work still to be done, she says.


SARA Gon's first date with the man who would become her husband was to a symphony concert. Although not a musician herself, she says the "next best thing is to be the audience".

Gon is managing director and one of the founders of the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra (JPO), and is passionate about the orchestra, Joburg and everything to do with classical music. The JPO was born out of the defunct National Symphony Orchestra.

While admitting that orchestras are still perceived as elitist and Eurocentric, she says that third world countries all over the world have orchestras – Egypt, China, Mexico, Dominican Republic, South Korea, and more.

Reserve Bank Governor Tito Mboweni, patron of the South African Ballet Theatre, sees "collapsing orchestras as a big mistake", she says. He would like to see a national orchestra created again.

But Gon doesn't agree. "An orchestra should be provincial – it should serve the community in which it is based." Besides, "we can't afford a national orchestra".

Cape Town and Durban have symphony orchestras, Pretoria has a chamber orchestra, and Bloemfontein and Port Elizabeth have part-time symphony orchestras. In Joburg there is the Pro-Musica Orchestra, based in Roodepoort, the Johannesburg Festival Orchestra, and various ensembles.

In addition, Gon argues, shouldn't any world-class city, the direction Joburg is hoping to move towards, have an orchestra? After all, it could be seen as something that contributes to the residents' well-being and good health, couldn't it?

History of JPO

The National Symphony Orchestra, the SABC's radio and recording orchestra, existed for 75 years - it was one of the oldest radio orchestras in the world, according to Gon. It was disbanded in 2000, and out of it grew the JPO. Although it was a shame to lose such a prestigious orchestra, it was the start of a new life for Gon.

A native Joburger, she is a qualified labour lawyer, and previously worked at law firm Webber Wentzel Bowens. As a lawyer she held several other positions: the chairperson of the Advertising Industry Tribunal, on the panel for the Arbitration and Mediation Service of South Africa, and on the Arbitration Foundation of South Africa. She was an acting judge in the Labour Court and an assessor in the Labour Appeal Court.

But at the end of 2002, Gon gave up law to start a new life with the JPO.

The orchestra, with 65-odd musicians, is the city's most popular orchestra; its vision is "world-class music for a world-class city", according to its website.

It is a seriously trimmed-down version of its predecessor: while there were about 19 people working for the NSO, Gon is the only full-time employee of the JPO, with three part-time helpers.

The orchestra has a loyal following in Joburg, with a subscriber base of more than 1 200 season-ticket holders. Its four, five-week concerts are keenly anticipated by those music lovers.

It is a Section 21 company owned by some of its musicians and managed by a board and a financial and artistic committee. The conductor and music adviser is Michael Hankinson, who has composed numerous film scores, a full-length ballet and several choral works, including the score for the first isiZulu opera, Princess Magogo.

Hankinson says of Gon: "To have a lawyer and former judge with us is great – she brings a legal clarity of thought to the job. She is a great asset to the orchestra."

Hankinson talks of her "passion and love" for the work, and of having the "highest qualified person in the country working for the orchestra".

And what of her music tastes? Gon adores Latin American music, particularly the rumba and the Argentinian tango. And of course the classical composers, ranging from Beethoven, Brahms and Schubert to Shostakovich and Copland. Gon, 45, says she's been going to classical concerts since 1981.

Home base

The JPO performs at the Linder Auditorium on the University of the Witwatersrand education campus. It is the prime tenant and hires the hall for its quarterly concerts, much loved by Joburgers, for 20 weeks in the year.

Back in 2003, the orchestra put on a week of performances at the City Hall. "It was our most popular week of performances up until the beginning of 2005," says Gon.

She reckons there are probably a number of factors that account for the popularity of the venue, despite the acoustics being in need of refurbishment. "Older people came for nostalgic reasons." But also, parking is available and, best of all, it is a grand venue with its wonderful large pipe organ dominating the stage.

The JPO's annual budget comes to between R5-million and R7-million. Ticket sales contribute 20 percent towards that, and the rest is made up by sponsors, among whom are Anglo American, Bidvest, Redefine Income Fund, the JD Group and Barlow World.

Gon says it's hard work to get the sponsorships. "Businessmen aspired to the arts 30 years ago - now they aspire to playing golf."

Sponsors for sports usually queue readily. And of course, there are many worthy causes like Aids and housing requiring money that has to go a long way.

What is also hard work is to broaden the audience base for classical music. "Most adults who enjoy classical music started listening to it in their early 20s," explains Gon, "we just have to find ways of making the genre appeal."

She is trying to focus on students as first-time concert-goers but believes that "audiences do not cross over". That said, the orchestra is very versatile – it plays pop, jazz, kwaito and almost everything else. And it is worthwhile remembering that in the 1950s and 1960s there was a strong symphony tradition in Soweto, says Gon.

There is a lot happening in Soweto anyway. The Buskaid Soweto String Project is a developmental youth orchestra, and in Alexandra the South Africa Music Education Trust (Samet) Alexandra Music Project is ongoing.

There are about 10 black musicians in the JPO – some have come from the National Chamber Orchestra, others from orchestras in KwaZulu-Natal. The Buskaid and Samet projects, Gon hopes, will also feed through black musicians.

What do the musicians do between seasons? "They play for other orchestras, teach, drive taxis . . . and starve," Gon explains.

Recordings

In 2004 the JPO released a world premier recording of a black British composer, Samuel Coleridge Taylor, who died in 1913 at the age of 38. It is the first-ever recording of Taylor's violin concerto, recorded by the orchestra and French violinist Philippe Graffin.

The JPO website quotes the Mail & Guardian newspaper as saying that the "importance of this recording should not be underestimated" and "as for its playing, the joy and passion the JPO has brought to this recording is almost tangible". The CD is available from the orchestra.

Gon hopes it will bring the JPO recognition and further recording invitations - and ultimately help it financially.

It has also released three live concert recordings for sale on CD. In addition, all its concerts are broadcast in full on Classic FM. They are aired on the radio station, so helping its local content requirements, and broadcasting the orchestra's fine playing.

The orchestra provides musical packages, including the music of Freddie Mercury, Queen or Star Wars, as well as a fireworks picnic concert, or chamber music concerts. In addition, it offers small ensembles to suit a particular venue and function.

Training

The orchestra is actively involved in training young musicians. Under its Adopt a Musician programme, young instrumentalists are assessed and trained free of charge, with a view to joining the JPO or another orchestra. Gon says two musicians from the programme are on the verge of joining the orchestra, while three others are still in training.

It established the Performer Development Initiative (PDI), overseen by Samet, with whom the JPO has a joint venture. The PDI aims to develop musical talent on a professional level and, in so doing, encourages musicians to remain in the country.

PDI candidate Benedict Sibanda, whose first exposure to music was through the Benoni Salvation Army band, where he was an eight-year-old trumpet player, showed promise. He picked up his first baton at the age of 12, and knew then that he wanted to be a conductor. He was given this chance in 2004 when he conducted the JPO, to a standing ovation.

Sibanda subsequently completed his Bachelor of Music degree but has been sidetracked by other activities.

Samet concentrates on bringing music education to township schools and JPO members teach in both these initiatives. So far about 3 500 township children have been exposed to classical music through these programmes.

Ambitions

Gon would like to see the city get a new 1 500-seat concert hall in Newtown. "It would be accessible to everyone," she enthuses, estimating that for between R80-million and R100-million, one could build this hall "with all the bells and whistles".

She would also like to see the musicians on a salary or retainer. Orchestras in Europe are state-sponsored and their musicians are salaried. In America orchestras are sponsored.

JPO musicians should be playing as much as possible, she says, becoming "the best orchestra in Africa". They should be the orchestra of choice when choral work is done and a sought-after orchestra for film and TV.

She would also like to see the orchestra branded along with the city image but, of course, when budgets are limited, advertising is not even considered.

Gon is keen to see more black audience members and, with more blacks moving into managerial and executive positions, this is likely to happen.

Another of her wishes is the creation of a youth orchestra.

The experience of managing the JPO has been more than worthwhile for her. "If you can get an orchestra going, you can survive anything," she says with a laugh.

Meanwhile, her husband still goes to concerts with her and her two sons occasionally come along too.

Dress rehearsals

THE public is welcome to attend the JPO's final dress rehearsals on Wednesdays. The rehearsals run from 10am to 1pm at the Linder Auditorium, and the public is asked to be seated by 9.45am.

Tickets are available at the door for R10. For more information contact Helen Crawford on 011 888 4398 or 011 888 7767 or email helenmary@mweb.co.za
​​Sara Gon - the JPO's secret weapon