by Jim Lemon
I joined the Cape Town Symphony Orchestra in February of 1993 as fourth horn. It was my first permanent position, and I was very excited to be so far from home. Our principal was English, so I really enjoyed hearing a horn sound that was different from that which I had heard as a boy.
Our first series of concerts was a Rachmaninov festival that took three weeks. It was an amazing musical experience filled with some of the most melodic musical ideas I had ever played. The political climate was very interesting at the time since the country was preparing to have its first free election the following year. It seemed to be very tense, and there was an excitement among people that maybe everyone might just learn to get along. I absolutely loved the scenery around the city, and even learned to drive on the “wrong” (left) side of the road; this was an adventure at first since I learned next to a cliff! My three years in Cape Town were filled with learning to understand “funny” accents (and having others learn my funny Texas one), meeting and chatting with many people, and learning to get used to the abundant poverty. Ultimately, I decided to stay in Africa.
My next stop, after a brief stint as fourth horn in Barcelona was playing in the pit orchestra back in Cape Town. I had not played many operas or musicals before, and the time in the pit made me wish I had gotten more opportunities to do this type of work. I was only there for 6 months as the government started diverting money away from orchestras in order to concentrate on projects for the indigenous cultures.
The Cape Town Symphony and the Opera orchestras both folded from the lack of funding, and I was fortunate to be hired as the first horn of a small chamber orchestra in Mafekeng, a city about four hours from Johannesburg. There, I started feeling like feeling like I was really in Africa; Cape Town had had a very British atmosphere. In Mafekeng, I saw the wildlife that I had only read about: rhinos, giraffes, and springboks. It was just a few miles south of Botswana, so the scenery was much different than that of Cape Town. (I went to a small village with a friend once while there, and the kids had not even heard of America, so I felt like I was in another world.) It was fantastic to play in a smaller ensemble, and I enjoyed working on making soft dynamics even softer so as not to cover up the strings since we were such a small group.<
|KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestra horn section; Durban, South Africa, ca. 2000. l to r: Olivier Brisville, principal; France. Jim Lemon, 3rd; USA. Peter Griffiths, 4th; England. Conrad van der Westhuizen, assistant; South Africa. Tzanko Tzankov; 2nd; Bulgaria |
After about three years, the government again decided to not fund orchestras; so once more, I was left without a job. As had been the case through several times of job loss, another job opened up on the Indian Ocean side of the country in the city of Durban. Through the various job changes, I only missed 2-4 paychecks, and one severance check actually kept me going for two months.
During my time in Durban, I learned to appreciate other schools of horn playing. We had a South African assistant, a French principal, a Bulgarian second, an American (me) on third, and an Englishman on fourth. Our sounds were different, but we managed to blend pretty well and even got to perform Schumann’s Konzertstück together. I also learned more about playing higher parts in a professional setting. My father had played first horn when I was young, and I realized I probably was not as comfortable playing solos as he had been. I sometimes played first when needed until I started having difficulty playing. I was later diagnosed with dystonia, and the orchestra generously allowed me to move to a lower part as my upper ranged started to deteriorate. They told me to take my time undergoing treatment by a neurologist. During this period, the Orchestra in Durban had a chance to go perform with the London Symphony Orchestra. We played Bolero with them, and also took a Zulu choir with us. Choral music is very popular in South Africa, and choirs there enjoy singing both Western Classical pieces as well as African songs. The audience in London truly appreciated the Zulu choir, and the ample applause was very well deserved. My playing difficulties continued for six years until management and I came to a mutual decision that it was time for me to step down.
After I retired from playing, I was on a medical disability. I eventually moved to a largely Indian/African community. I even tried my hand at raising goats! The poverty in that community was something that has been hard to forget now that I am back home in the Texas Panhandle. Every time I hear someone complain about not liking what is on their plate, I realize that after almost 22 years of living in South Africa, I am still undergoing a bit of culture shock. Particularly after my last two years there, where we didn’t always have electricity or running water, I believe that we are very blessed here in the United States and that it is still a wonderful place to live. I will always be grateful for my time overseas: the scenery, the wildlife, and most of all the people -- they were a genuine treasure -- and I look forward to returning for a visit in the future.