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South Africa Orchestra Says Goodbye

January 26, 2000

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) _ Members of South Africa’s leading orchestra are giving a pair of concerts to thank their followers _ no salary, no tickets, no conductor, and no future.

The 76-year-old National Symphony Orchestra has run out of money.

During a final rehearsal Wednesday, downcast players ran through the sweetly tragic melodies of the intermezzo from Mascagni’s opera ``Cavalleria Rusticana.″ Violin cases rested open on the auditorium seats, children’s photographs stuck on the velvet lining.

The concerts Wednesday and Thursday are to say farewell. But the publicity doesn’t hurt either, said bassoonist Paul Rogers, the players’ informal leader.

``They are a way of putting pressure on government, the business community and, let’s be honest, on the public,″ he said.

Tough economic times dried up donations and the government won’t come to the rescue. In the week since the closing was announced, the board said Wednesday it has received pledges of only $585,000 toward the necessary $1.7 million for another season.

With the smell of collapse long in the air, many of the 53 musicians already shifted gears _ studying computers, selling Amway products, buying a video store, running a concert agency. Trumpeter Donny Bouwel took a private school teaching job. American concertmaster Caius Oprea flew back to the United States for auditions.

Others are facing life after professional music in a country with few such positions. It is an excruciating prospect for people who have spent most of their years practicing on brass and wood and gut.

``It’s a passion. It’s not just a job,″ said violinist Elsabe Laubscher.

While accepting that funds have run out, some members believe the board of directors wants to resurrect the orchestra with longer hours, more pops concerts and fewer sick days. Board Chairman Don MacRobert denies the suggestion, but declares, ``We must be more commercial.″

Some in the African National Congress government, though sorry to see the orchestra go, accept its departure. It was under apartheid that Western art forms received lavish funding to the exclusion of African culture. It was partly thanks to apartheid that the black majority is so desperately in need of money for basic needs like clean water, clinics, schools _ and maybe not orchestras.

But despite its mainly white audiences and membership, the NSO accompanies black choirs and is deeply involved in bringing music to poor children in black townships through workshops, coaching sessions and other means. It says it has played for more than 13,000 mostly poor kids since 1998.

Bass trombonist Alex Hitzeroth is one of two nonwhites in the ranks. He joined the orchestra full-time last Thursday, and hours later was told it was folding. A tender 18, Hitzeroth plans to continue as a musician.

``I have to,″ he said. ``It’s my life. It’s all I wanted to become.″

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