Sixty years of classical excellence

Saturday November 8 2008


The Nairobi Orchestra is 60 years old this year. And to celebrate the anniversary, the orchestra presents a gala concert on November 15.

They will also join the Nairobi Music Society and soloists in performing Handel’s Messiah the first weekend of December.

The oldest orchestra in the region was started in 1926 by a Dr Scott in Tanganyika. In 1945, Dr Scott retired and moved to Nairobi, where he found that the Italian Prisoners of War had an excellent orchestra, giving concerts all over.

But the end of World War II saw the Italians repatriated and Nairobi was left without an orchestra. It was then that Dr Scott decided to put together a permanent one and the Nairobi Orchestra was born.

The orchestra gave its inaugural concert at the Theatre Royal (now Cameo, on Kenyatta Avenue) in December 1947.

Today, the orchestra is made up of 40 members, most of whom live in Kenya. But there is also a large number of expatriates working in Kenya who come and go.

The orchestra generally performs three times a year – in March, June and November – and one of these concerts is with the Nairobi Music Society Choir.

Keeping the orchestra together has many challenges. Finding a satisfactory number of skilled players for a performance is one of them, as the members are all voluntary and lead busy lives.

Finance is another make-or-break issue. Finances are generated solely through ticket sales. Sponsorship has helped at times but is not always forthcoming, as classical music is neither a high profile nor a mass market product.

Fortunately, a fairly loyal fan base and vigilant treasurer ensures that the orchestra is solvent.

One of the orchestra’s oldest members, Dick Moss. He has been a member since he came to Kenya in 1959.

Between his journeys through Kenya as a surveyor, Moss and his wife Julia have played in more than 100 orchestral performances between them.

They also play a variety of musical instruments and continue to teach music to students at various levels.

Means of expression

“We adore orchestral music and Nairobi Orchestra is the only way we can enjoy it here. Classical music is a marvellous means of expression and stands as one of the great achievements of western culture. To ignore it is your loss,” Mr Moss says.

“All music heard nowadays is delivered through some electronic system and is therefore manipulated and distorted by somebody other than the player. Not so with orchestral music. It is delivered pure and natural, straight from the instrument controlled by the musician. Surely, that is worth struggling for.”

Mr Moss is working on a book, Quavers Near the Equator, detailing the last 60 years of the orchestra, which should be released next year.

The gala concert will be conducted by a long-time friend of the orchestra, visiting conductor Damian Penfold who has conducted two Christmas concerts in Nairobi before.

Penfold was a finalist in the highly prestigious International Sibelius Competition for young conductors and has plenty of experience with amateur and professional musicians.

The opening item on the programme is Nicolai’s overture The Merry Wives of Windsor, which was especially chosen for this anniversary concert, as it ended the orchestra’s first performance 60 years ago.

And in honour of the 50th anniversary of the composer Vaughan Williams’s death, the orchestra will be performing his lyrical Norfolk Rhapsody.

Another special feature of the programme is the world premiere performance of An Australian in Kenya, which has been specially commissioned for the orchestra’s anniversary.

The composer is Maltese-Australian Dr Jesmond Grixti, who is currently living in Nairobi.

In September, another of his works received its premiere at New York’s Carnegie Hall with international trombone soloist Barrie Webb, and in October yet another was premiered in Melbourne.

The centre-piece of the programme is the beautiful piano concerto by Schumann played by visiting Ugandan pianist Ivan Kiwuwa, who delighted audiences when he gave a recital at the Kenya National Theatre two years ago.

Graduate, postgraduate and now Fellow of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, Kiwuwa is the winner of many prizes and scholarships, including the Martin Musical Scholarship, the Sevenoaks Festival Young Musician of the Year and the Royal Overseas League’s Philip Crawshaw Memorial Prize.

Reviewer Nicola Lisle, writing in the Oxford Times, said that “from the moment he starts to play, Kiwuwa becomes completely engrossed in the music, which he imbues with passion, sensitivity and sincerity, giving a deeply committed and informed interpretation and displaying an extraordinary empathy with the composer. Absolutely wonderful.”

Entry for adults is Sh500 and Sh250 for students and senior citizens.