Sometimes you just have to say “Yes”…

This has been the summer of my discontent. Practically the only thing that hasn’t gone wrong is that my wife didn’t file for divorce and neither of my children ran away to the circus. We need to get away. Enter the Zulu nation…

A few weeks back my manager forwarded one of those emails that any conductor both looks forward to and dreads with a passion.  It was an enquiry from the KwaZulu Natal Philharmonic – “Say, what are you doing the last 10 days of August?  We’re looking for a conductor to do a tour of South Africa with Renée Fleming.”


Once again South Africa enters my life.  The first time was way back in January, 1984, when I was a contestant at the 1st Johannesburg International Piano Competition.  No idea if there was ever a second one.  I washed out in the 2nd round (damn that Feux Follet!) but I wasn’t there to win – I was there to observe.  I wanted to see apartheid South Africa and make up my own mind as to what was going on there.  The experience was enlightening, to say the least.  Despite the wonderful people, fascinating culture, and fantastic food I left the S.A. convinced that the only way democracy was ever going to come was through a river of blood.

But what truly stuck with me about the experience was coming back to the U.S. and turning on the TV, only to see Ronald Reagan mouthing off as an apologist for the apartheid regime.  Since I had just spent two weeks in this country which recognized me as a human being solely by the fact that I had a U.S. passport stapled to my forehead at all times (I, quite literally, wouldn’t even go to the bathroom without it) I was deeply enraged to hear the President of the United States take this stand.  I promptly found the political center, turned left, and started running.  I haven’t stopped since, and thus my political radicalism took root.

It was almost 15 years later, in November of 1998, when I found myself back in that beautiful country, this time in Durban on the east coast.  Much had changed during that time and I admit that no one was more surprised than I was to see Nelson Mandela walk out of prison, let alone a true democratic election take place.  One of my favorite photos of all time was in the NYTimes the day after the election.  It showed a young black woman crying her eyes out in disbelief and joy, and on her T-shirt was printed “South African Voting for the 1st Time.”

Early in 1998 my manager called saying that there was an offer for me to conduct the KwaZulu Natal Philharmonic.  My response was “BOOK IT!” and then I promptly slammed down the phone.  I didn’t care where this orchestra was, I just loved the idea of saying “I’m going to conduct the KwaZulu Natal Philharmonic!” and watch everyone else’s faces screw up in puzzlement.  So I found myself in Durban where I thoroughly enjoyed myself eating Indian food and wandering around for two weeks.  I also had an engagement ring made while I was there.  Boy did THAT come in handy later.

Then nothing until  few weeks ago and that fateful email.  My first thought was “You’re doing a tour with Renée Fleming in 6 weeks and you don’t have a conductor yet?”  My second thought was “of course they’re doing a tour with Renée Fleming in 6 weeks and they don’t have a conductor yet.” It might be South Africa, but it’s still AFRICA!  But after all this time why think of me?  What I suspect happened is that Renée got wind of the fact that they didn’t have anyone to conduct yet and threw out a couple of names, mine being one of them.  I had the pleasure of working with her last September when she sang with the ESO for our Gala concert.  Perhaps the memory of that time was fresh in her mind.

And so today I will make the long schlep to the bottom of Africa.  We are scheduled to perform in Durban, Pretoria, and Cape Town.  I have six rehearsals for a program that should only take us two.  I finally received confirmation of what’s on the program on Saturday.  Confirmation of the internal flights came yesterday.  It promises to be an adventure.

One thing I’ve already noticed – I usually stay at a decent hotel when I travel, and occassionally an orchestra really finds a beautiful place for me to call my temporary home.  But when you’re part of Renée Fleming’s entourage – oh boy, a 5 star resort in the middle of a game reserve on the Dolphin Coast is a wee bit of an upgrade!

1 thought on “Sometimes you just have to say “Yes”…”

  1. We unfotrtunately missed out , from the top opera fundis we’ve heard amazing reports just agreat WOW Thanx for coming to our country again Bill and giving such a fab repor!! regards Zelda

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