The first Bulawayo Music Festival took place in April 1997 when it was conceived as a one-off, week-long multiple celebration of anniversaries: the 60th of the Bulawayo Philharmonic Orchestra, the 40th of Performing Arts Bulawayo, the 20th of the National Symphony Orchestra – and, for good measure, the 100th of the arrival of the railway in Bulawayo. A steam safari commemorated this last with a special train transporting the musicians and audience from Bulawayo to Victoria Falls where there was a water-borne concert on the Zambezi – and no one who was there will ever forget Tasmin Little playing the Bach E major Partita to an entranced hippopotamus.
Prior to that there had been a week of concerts that had also involved among others Marilyn Hill Smith (soprano), Leslie Howard (piano), Piers Lane (piano), Donald Hunt (organ), the Odeion String Quartet and Edward Greenfield. As well as the concerts there were performer interviews, and talks on Elgar from Donald Hunt and Walton from Edward Greenfield who had known the composer well. The latter also presented a special ‘Greenfield Collection’ in Bulawayo and subsequently devoted an entire edition of his weekly radio programme to the festival.
An important aspect of that festival and all its successors was outreach to schools and young people: three hundred schoolchildren were part of the audience at the opening concert and various performances were mounted in the western suburbs including one in St.Columba’s Church where over six hundred heard Tasmin Little and Piers Lane perform.
That first festival was so successful that it inspired a second, even larger successor two years later which, like the first, included a marathon orchestral concert, this one featuring, after the overture to Idomeneo, four major concertos: Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ (Hamish Milne), Brahms’ Violin (Elizabeth Wallfisch), Chopin’s No.2 (Seta Tanyel) and Dvorak’s Cello (Colin Carr). The Odeion Quartet was in attendance again, as was Jeanette Micklem. Dame Felicity Lott and Graham Johnson gave the opening concert and there was particular pleasure in this as Graham was at school in Bulawayo and received his early musical education here before becoming the city’s most famous, though by no means only, musical export.
The third festival in April 2001 very nearly didn’t happen, indeed was at one stage cancelled, a reflection of the increasing economic difficulties in Zimbabwe. It was reduced in both length and number of performers with Leslie Howard and Nokuthula Ngwenyama (viola) joining the Odeion Quartet who generously gave their services. Even so there were four days of wonderful music culminating in an orchestral concert that was in many ways Derek Hudson’s swan-song when the slightly more manageable programme included Mozart’s Prague Symphony and E flat Sinfonia Concertante and Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto.
The first three festivals had been largely the work of a small committee comprising Derek Hudson, Michael Bullivant and Deborah Barron. There had been desultory talk of a 2003 festival but little in the way of plans: Derek had suffered a heart attack and never fully regained his health and Deborah had an increasingly demanding job that took her away from Bulawayo on a regular basis and finally permanently whilst the dollar plunged to ever deeper lows, funding seemed impossible and the spectre of violence grew. However, at somewhat short notice Performing Arts Bulawayo, of which Michael Bullivant had been chairman for nearly twenty-five years, determined that there should be another, out-of-sequence, festival in December 2002 to coincide with the total eclipse of the sun that would be visible from large parts of Matabeleland. It was fraught with difficulties with performers pulling out because of the country’s bad publicity and an American piano trio failing to get an anticipated grant less than two weeks before the Festival was due to start. In the event, the trio’s violinist, Rebekah Johnson, travelled at her own expense and played a major role.
Beginning with a performance of Messiah in a packed St.John’s Cathedral (over a hundred listened from outside), the Eclipse Festival ran for a week and involved musicians and performers from Britain, the United States and South Africa as well as Zimbabwe though this time there were no high-profile visitors. The eclipse was witnessed in the early morning from the top of a kopje fifty miles south of Bulawayo and there was an open-air concert in the late afternoon that particularly marked the event, including as it did ‘The sun whose rays’ from The Mikado, Finzi’s ‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun’ and, for good measure, Rusalka’s Song to the Moon! This Eclipse Festival was also notable for including a theatrical evening directed by Caroline Clegg, The Spirit of Africa, a fusion of poetry, dance and largely African music.
Over three years passed as Zimbabwe descended further into chaos and for a time both hyper-inflation and the political scene seemed to make further festivals out of the question. However, with an optimism not entirely justified by its bank balance, Performing Arts determined that there should be another and aimed for June 2006: provisional bookings with musicians were made early in 2005 and a decision was finally taken late in the year that a festival would go ahead and that its scope would not merely match its predecessors but surpass them. Despite major problems and three withdrawals for various reasons (none of them connected with events in Zimbabwe), it proved possible with the generous support of the Beit Trust and MBCA Bank to bring no fewer than five musicians from Britain – Leslie Howard on his tenth visit, Benjamin Nabarro (violin), Ania Safonova (violin/viola), Matthew Sharp (cello) and Michael Brownlee Walker (piano) – and to involve many local performers too.
And not only were there twenty concerts in the main festival programme but as many more took take place as part of ‘Make It Happen’, an ‘alternative festival’ featuring more than four hundred performers which ran in tandem with the classical music and featured many other kinds of music – pop, jazz, African, gospel, mbiras and marimbas, a youth orchestra from Harare and school choirs – as well as dance, poetry and drama. All of this was in the adjacent Trade Fair arena and a gate was knocked in the wall for easy access. But it was the wall rather than the gate that won and the two halves of the festival never came together as had been hoped.
There was never any doubt that a sixth festival would follow and the two-year rhythm be resumed. Plans were laid within weeks and, although the country teetered ever closer to the abyss throughout the period and at the time of the festival appeared to be poised on the very edge as horrific violence increased prior to the run-off presidential election, music again triumphed over all circumstances with its ability, as Leonard Bernstein put it, to ‘name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable’.
There were no fewer than ten visitors, the new Odeion String Quartet from South Africa and six musicians from Britain. Again there was a last-minute withdrawal, this time because of ‘the situation’, but most of the programme was saved through the wonderful co-operation of the other musicians, most notably Jeanne-Louise Moolman of the Odeion Quartet who shouldered an immense additional load. For the first time there was no orchestra but compensation aplenty was found in an impressive list of chamber works that dominated the seventeen concerts: four quintets, six quartets, seven trios and music for two pianos in addition to the usual duo and solo recitals. Another highlight was the Zimbabwean celebration of Leslie Howard’s sixtieth birthday when there was a repeat of the Wigmore Hall concert for that event followed by a dinner at the Bulawayo Club with a specially designed birthday cake. There was also an extensive programme in the grounds and daily guitar and percussion workshops culminating in the performance of Morgan.
That performance preceded music for strings by Mozart and Leslie Howard, and the final work in 2008’s festival was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Liszt’s arrangement for two pianos. A choir of 150 included over a hundred schoolchildren, virtually none of whom could read music and there were anxious moments for Beethoven’s demands are considerable. In the event it was a triumph (the notorious 12-bar top A especially so!) and, although a little early to herald the new Zimbabwe that still remains so elusive, Beethoven’s great hymn to freedom can rarely have had greater resonance or a more appropriate setting for its enduring message:
All men shall be brothers where your gentle wings beat,
Your magic unites those whom rigid custom divides.