The 70th anniversary gala of the Kenya Conservatoire of Music was celebrated at the Braeburn Theatre last weekend with performances of everything from Mozart and Beethoven to traditional indigenous Kenyan music and dance.
The key to the gala’s success was the 11-year-old Conservatoire Symphony Orchestra under the baton of the Vienna-based conductor Vijay Upadhyaya.
Preparations for the celebrations have been under way for many months, according to Conservatoire director Corinne Towett, who has been running Kenya’s leading music school for the past six years. Originally a piano student at the school, Corrine went on to teach there; but when the job of MD came up, she applied and got it.
The first African woman to get the position, Corrine isn’t the first indigenous Kenyan to be director in a field that historically has been filled with expatriate Europeans.
Prior to her taking up the post, Atigala Luvai held the post. It was he who realised the school needed its own orchestra. And so, in the first days of the 21st century, he inaugurated the conservatoire’s own symphony orchestra.
Made up of practically all Kenyan students of the school, the conservatoire’s orchestra reflects the changing complexion of Kenyan musical culture.
For, while we may think the singular musical interest that young Kenyans have is in hip hop and rap, the conservatoire’s orchestral team of musicians are practically all indigenous Kenyans in their 20s.
“There’s one 14-year-old flutist and one cellist in his early 40s,” said violinist Charles Ralak, the ‘leader’ of the orchestra, on Friday night just moments before the final rehearsal under the baton of the India-born guest conductor, Professor Upadhyaya, at Kenya Cultural Centre, home of KCM.
It was that youthful enthusiasm that infused the entire gala performance with grace, sparks of humour and electrifying vitality last Saturday night.
During both halves of the gala showcase, the first was filled with duets, solos, the award-winning Nairobi Chamber choir and even a song from the conservatoire’s first musical production Seventeen.
The second half featured the symphony orchestra that was so well-received that ‘Vijay’ (as he is fondly known) had to conduct not one but two encores.
Of course, the Saturday night audience was filled with family, friends and invited guests.
But the conductor, who had only had one week to rehearse with the orchestra, also elicited an obvious endorsement from the audience; given the 47-year-old chairman of Vienna University’s music department exuded warmth, interactive energy and an indisputable affection for both the music and the orchestra.
Brought to Kenya courtesy of the Austrian Embassy, Professor Upadhyaya first came to conduct the Conservatoire orchestra together with St Paul’s choir a year ago when the church’s choirmaster requested the embassy to provide them with a top professional conductor.
The rationale of the request was simple, explained Corrine. It was because the choir was intent on singing a Mozart mass, and Mozart was of course an Austrian. So the embassy approached Vienna University where Upadhyaya conducts as many as nine orchestras and three choirs (with support from four assistants). But he had no problem taking time out for the Kenyans since he feels strongly that the Kenya Conservatoire is destined for greatness.
“It is one of the few music schools of its kind in Africa, and it’s getting stronger by the year,” the conductor said.
“And one of the most exciting aspects of the school is that it has just expanded its teaching reservoir to include the oboe, French horn and bassoon, as well as several indigenous Kenyan instruments.”
So far, only one Kenyan, Alex Waweru, has taken up the call to begin learning the bassoon. But despite only playing for the past one year, Waweru still stole the show during a hilarious spoof on the seriousness of classically-trained musicians.
Playing a fumbling buffoon in a duet with Nathaniel Gachukia, Waweru’s silliness brought the house down with amusement, only to give way to a brilliant solo piano performance by Gachukia, who was just one of many Conservatoire students who are changing the face of musical excellence in Kenya today.