South Africa Diary – On the ground in the Mother Continent

South Africa has always been an important part in my history and now I’m going back, this time on the coattails of Renée Fleming.  Nothing to do now but grab the bags and head to the airport.  After a long day arguing with Delta airlines I end up …….. sleeping in my own bed?  This is not a good start.

Conductors are, as a rule, travel veterans.  If you want good travel advice ask one of us.  So when I noticed that my flight to Atlanta was getting further and further delayed, thereby putting any hope of making my Atlanta-Johannesburg connection into serious jeopardy, I walked away from the gate and quickly called the airline to rebook for the next day (Saturday). And then I called my wife.  Turned out to be a good move because when I finally did make it to Atlanta I recognized a couple of people who were supposed to make the same connection to Joburg that I was on.  They had spent the night at the local Red Roof Inn by the airport.  Joy.

The flight from Atlanta to Joburg is a nasty 14 ½ hours.  The one advantage is that there’s actually enough time to get a decent night’s sleep.  Of course this all depends on whether you can sleep on a plane, something I find very difficult, especially in coach.  But once you’re in Joburg everything changes.  It is immediately obvious that you’re not in Kansas anymore.  A riot of colors, smells, and languages starts an assault on your jet-lagged system and you fall behind at your peril.  My handler (don’t ask) spoke Sutu as a first tongue, a fascinating and melodic language that reminded me a little bit of Mandarin, and I found it fascinating just listening to her and her colleagues josh each other at the end of a long day.  A quick jaunt from Joburg and suddenly I’m back in Durban again.

I’m met at the Durban airport by two people – Janet, marketing director for the KwaZulu Natal Philharmonic, and the driver from the resort where I am staying.  And here is where the first “African” thing happens.  The resort car suddenly decides that it will not turn on and Janet promptly volunteers to take me to the resort.  Zimbali resort is a good 35 minutes north of town but she cheerfully throws my bags into her car and off we go.

It is refreshing to meet people like Janet in this business.  A divorced mother of two boys, she has only worked @ the KZN for 5 months but she quite obviously loves her job.  She is full of enthusiasm and believes very strongly in the orchestra, rather obvious assets for a marketing director.  The ride to the resort is entertaining and relaxing and I know that I’ve already made a friend.

Sleeping with your porch doors open in South Africa is quite different than in Minnesota.  The birds here are much nosier in the morning, and then comes the realization that some of those calls you’ve been hearing aren’t from birds at all.  That causes one to reconsider the wisdom of leaving your doors open all night – one might get an unexpected visitor of a primate nature.  No matter – they’re probably a not-too-distant cousin so best just go with it.

In the morning I met Robert who is the Ops manager for the orchestra.  He’s my ride into town and one of the first things that he tells me is that the very first orchestral concert he ever attended was my last concert with the KZN Phil in 1998!  Evidently we left him with a good impression because now he’s working for them.  His enthusiasm for his job is a mirror of Janet’s, which leads me to wonder if they’ve both put something into their coffee.

The KZN Phil is the orchestra with which I had one of the most hilarious rehearsals in my entire life.  One of the two programs I did with them in ’98 was an all-American show which featured Rhapsody and the dances from West Side Story.  During the first rehearsal for WSS we were merrily cooking along in the Mambo section when I gave a big cue for everyone to yell “MAMBO.”  What I heard instead was a very polite “uhh……. Mambo…….. yes…… quite.”  Unbeknownst to me the KZN was chock full of Eastern Europeans and British ex-pats.  I fell over laughing and, for the only time in my life, had to rehearse how to yell “MAMBO” in a suitable NewyoRican manner.

I’m glad to say that I still recognize a few folk from the KZN, and that the “MAMBO” rehearsal is now legendary.  The rehearsals and concert are in the main room in the City Hall, a rather cavernous thing with strange acoustics which is familiar to me from last time.  Honestly, I’m not sure how the orchestra sounds so I am making my most educated guess, which is typical of any conductor.  I shall be curious to hear everyone when we get to Pretoria and Cape Town where we play in actual “hall.”

After two rehearsals the day after flying 18 hours there is no prettier sight than one’s family who have done the exact same itinerary except 24 hours later.  What a pleasure to welcome them to Africa!  We dash to the resort, have a late dinner, and settle down for the night.  I am up before them and recline comfortably on the veranda sipping my morning tea.  I am quickly reminded that we are in Africa.  Usually when I see a shadow on the rooftop and a creature leaping onto the branch 4 meters from me it’s a squirrel.  I’m not sure who was more surprised this time – the monkey or me – but that’s a sight I shan’t forget anytime soon.

Today is another double but this time the evening rehearsal is with La Diva.  Renée & company get in this morning.  I am very much looking forward to introducing her to the KZN Phil.  Tomorrow, I believe, we will safari!

2 thoughts on “South Africa Diary – On the ground in the Mother Continent”

  1. Hi Bill,
    I loved part 2 of your diary. I was fortunate to have dinner with Renee in Sydney after her great recital in April 2002. Renee is the best!! The rep for the concerts is fantastic and what a great time for you all. Please remember me to Renee and my best wishes for all of you on this great musical adventure. Regards, Vincent

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