History, tradition and quality are what the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra (CPO) embody. Since its inaugural concert in February 1914
to tonight’s romantic performance at the Castle, the CPO and its previous incarnations have been at the very centre of the cultural life
of Cape Town. Known for the first-class classical concerts it has given with some of the world’s best artists, including Vladimir Ashkenazy,
Yehudi Menuhin and Nigel Kennedy, the orchestra today is also feted for its lighter concerts, its pops and crossovers in venues that range
from the City Hall and Artscape to community halls and Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. Celebrity performances have included Noël
Coward as well as the fabulous Cirque de la Symphonie, which returns to the CPO in June. The CPO is the most active orchestra in the country,
and in Africa, giving 140 performances a year.
The cost in 1914 for a conductor, six violinists, one viola, two celli, one bass, two clarinets, one oboe, one bassoon, two cornets, one
trombone and one drum was less than £5 000 (roughly the equivalent of R75 000). Today the annual budget for 45 full-time musicians is
more than R20 million! The first tickets were one shilling (two and sixpence for a reserved seat in the balcony, bays or front area) and
70 000 people heard those first 80 concerts. In later years, though, money issues reared their heads and the orchestra, which had been
fully funded by the city council, was privatised in the 1980s – leading to the Cape Town Municipal Orchestra becoming the Cape Town
Symphony Orchestra. In 1997, this orchestra merged with the opera and ballet orchestra at the Artscape and, in 1999, the orchestra you
hear tonight gave its first concert. Through all these changes, the city has never been without a symphony.
The orchestra’s first music festival was held to mark its 10th anniversary, in 1924, and the first recordings of its performances were made soon
afterwards by Edison Bell. Ninety years on, the CPO has a huge bank of recordings. Its most recent album was released last Christmas –
a recording of four clarinet concerti by Spohr with principal clarinet Maria du Toit and conductor Arjan Tien.
Tours begun nearly 100 years ago have continued, showing that Cape Town can stand with the best. The first orchestra went to England a
few times – and played for the Royal Family in Cape Town in 1947. The Cape Town Symphony Orchestra was invited to Taiwan, the Cape Town
Philharmonic Orchestra went to the Canary Islands and the CPO has toured the US, where it lifted the rafters of halls along the east coast,
so loud was the acclaim.
The orchestras have made a tremendous contribution to situating Cape Town as an international tourism hub. They have also taken
music education and skills transfer seriously. The first outreach began under the CTSO and has led to the CPO’s huge outreach Masidlale
projects. These reach thousands of people a year and range from teaching strings and woodwinds in the townships to giving concerts
in underprivileged communities. There are also two Cape Town Philharmonic Youth Orchestras and two Youth Wind Ensembles, which
entertain people all over the Western Cape at fundraisers and galas.
One thing is for sure: no matter the orchestra’s name, orchestral music has been in Cape Town for 100 years, and it is here to stay! Join the
CPO at its regular City Hall performances and let music continue to feed your soul.