Composer Warren Bessey
Composer Warren Bessey

Peta Stewart

Last year’s roof-rousing African Celebration was a merging of several facets of South African history and culture, so what next? Another celebration, this time one that celebrates the first nations of this country.

In the view of Canadian-born, South African composer Warren Bessey, the work, Rise of the Hunter, is “a powerful musical journey through history which compels us to consider the indigenous voice and deeply reflect on where we stand concerning human rights and righteous humanity in South Africa.”

The world premiere is dedicated to the First Nations of South Africa. The concert, which concludes the Winter Symphonies at the City Hall of the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra on 27 June, 2024, includes several songs, such as the iconic Plea for Africa, which will be conducted by Monwabisi Mbambani. Brandon Phillips will conduct Rise of the Hunter.

Bessey, who is also a published author and is completing his PhD,  fell in love with South Africa when on holiday here in 1987, becoming a permanent resident in 1989. He has always been fascinated by history and culture and while growing up in Peterborough, Canada, he had often visited a nearby Ojibwa land reservation.

“The First Nations of the world share a common plight, and I wanted to highlight a unique piece of history that is timely yet not a typical subject of symphonic music,” he says.

The arts platform

“There were questions. Can a symphony open the possibilities of awareness and social cohesion around very sensitive First Nation issues and aspirations? Can I, a composer of European descent, humbly and honestly offer this work as a step toward deeper understanding? These questions show why the arts provide such an important platform for engagement.”

“I came to realise that the loss of the last few San languages signifies the extinction of invaluable ancient knowledge, cultural heritage, and unique ways of understanding and interacting with our world. Each language is a universe of its own, holding poetry, songs, and wisdom – a wisdom that potentially holds the key to a better, more righteous, compassionate, and inclusive world.”

“The work speaks of South Africa’s First Nation San people whose culture has been at risk for centuries. Telling this dramatic story through music has been an extraordinary journey of discovery and self-reflection.”

“The opening scene, ‘The Myth’ presents a /Xam mythological tale about how the Milky Way was created.  It is spoken in the beautiful ancient language of Khwedam, a First Nations tongue in need of protection and preservation as it is spoken only by 8 000 people in the world.”

Bessey and the CPO’s Louis Heyneman met with common purpose.

“I have always had great respect for the CPO whose reputation as a premiere orchestra is well known,” says Bessey. “We agreed it would be fitting for the CPO to perform the World Premiere in Cape Town where the story began. Besides the music being uniquely dramatic and emotional, I think we both believed it was something new that the audience should experience.”

The CPO Afri-Arts Choir
The CPO Afri-Arts Choir

Bessey loves music, the arts

“If I were to say that I have a goal in life, a destiny, it would be to be a bridge between one culture and another. My heart is right in the middle, extending the hand to the right and to the left to bring people together and see how beautiful their unity can be through the arts.”

If you are looking for the work’s provenance you will find it, he says, in Saint Saȅns, Respighi, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Copland and Vivaldi with a touch of Hans Zimmerman and French violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. “Then there are unlimited other influences,” he says, “from, for instance, a native Siberian punk-folk band called Otyken. What influences me is less about the notes and more about how I am moved emotionally through music.”

Bessey came to music at the age of 12 via a drum and bugle marching band.

“I was caught up in the excitement of playing with others who loved music as well as competing and understanding how dedication and tight-knit unity was required to be great and win awards. Those qualities have stayed with me my entire life.”

He grew up with a soprano mother and a nuclear engineer father who worked on hydro-power electricity. He learnt the importance of passion and encouragement from his mother, and his father’s gift of visualization.

“This is why I compose music using visualization techniques. Each scene is a visual in my mind which allows the music to speak a story.”

He could have been a footballer, or even an ice hockey champ but he shocked his family and friends by quitting sports and choosing music. The first live concert he heard was with a trumpeter Maynard Ferguson.

“I had never experienced such intensity and unstoppable energy for life. I think I realised then that you cannot be stopped if you love what you do.”

Trumpet became his instrument, but he realised he didn’t really want to be a truly accomplished trumpeter and had already been composing from the age of 15. “Then, in second year of university, my composition Queen of the Atlantis received favourable reviews, ‘a breath of fresh air’.

He would love to see Rise of the Hunter go overseas, because it is a global message that needs to be told through the arts.

Capetonians can look forward to fireworks – the use of the grand organ in the City Hall, the CPO Afri-Arts Choir of 60 voices, soprano Tina Mene and a narrator of a short text perhaps even in the San language.

“I am also excited that people will hear and experience my first work in isiXhosa.  The beautiful singing of an extraordinary soloist and the choir will release a story (con fuoco- with fire) that needs to be told and heard. In the telling, there is a form of healing, and in the hearing, a chance for understanding.”

What: CPO Winter Symphonies City Hall
Who: CPO Afri-Arts Choir, soloists and Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra; conductors Monwabisi Mbambane, supported by the City of Cape Town.  Pre-concert talk with composer Warren Bessey and Albert Combrink at 6.45pm
When: Thursday 27 June 2024, 7.30pm City Hall
Tickets: Here, and Artscape Dial-a-Seat 021 421 7695
Dress rehearsal: