Nairobi Orchestra is back on stage


Samyak Raja, 15-year-old violinist who will play a solo piece at the concert by Nairobi Orchestra on Sunday, June 27, 2021 at the Kenya National Theatre. PHOTO | POOL

Fans of classical music who have been starved of concerts due to the restrictions on public events, finally have plenty to cheer this weekend when the first performance by the Nairobi Orchestra takes place at the Kenya National Theatre.

Last March, just before the first Covid-19 lockdown, Nairobi Orchestra was carrying out its final rehearsals for a concert featuring visiting guest soloist Liz Knott performing an oboe concerto.

“We were just two days away from the dress rehearsal when the lockdown was declared and the concert was cancelled,” says Levi Wataka, who is conducting the orchestra this Sunday.

Since then, the Orchestra has hosted a virtual international collaboration with musicians in different parts of the world.

The concert in November 2020 was a celebration of the 250th birth anniversary of German composer Ludwig van Beethoven when the Nairobi Orchestra, together with musicians from around came together to create a Kenyan contribution to this celebration by recording a section of “Beethoven in Kenya.”

This was an arrangement by Shaka Marko that infused Kenyan traditional rhythms and idioms in an exciting medley of Beethoven’s symphonies.

“This is the first physical concert in over a year, so we are removing the cobwebs and testing the waters with the musicians,” says Wataka, about the concert at the Kenya National Theatre.

For Wataka, the past year has been a steep learning curve. “It was a career-shocking moment because I have spent all my career on acoustic music, but I have had to switch to digital and electronic formats very quickly,” he says.

He conducted a section of the orchestra during a performance of the Kenyan opera “Nyanga Runaway Grandmother” the Kenyan opera by Rhoda Orengo Wilhelmsen at the Kenya National Theatre in July 2020.

The orchestra held its first rehearsal for the upcoming concert last Wednesday and there was a buzz around the room as the musicians reconnected with the atmosphere and the experience of playing in a live setting after a long time.

The orchestra has included pieces by Kenyan composers in each concert repertoire; “Tuba Concerto” composed by Njane Mugambi which premièred in 2017, and “Sherehe” which was written by Philip Maina when he was a player and composer in residence with the Scokendia ensemble in Glasgow in 2014.

“This is a beautiful piece, with a very catchy Kenyan feel including a dance section incorporating very authentic idioms,” says Wataka.

One of the attractions during the concert is a solo by 15-year-old violinist Samyak Raja who will play Mozart’s Concerto in G Major, accompanied by piano.

Raja who has just completed his IGSCE at Braeburn School started playing the violin at the age of seven and was encouraged to join the orchestra by David Ralak, who was one of his former tutors.

He won the Intermediate solo category and was runner up as a member of a trio during the Young Musicians Competition, an annual event drawing participants from East Africa and held at Kenton College, Nairobi.

“Samyak is a perfect poster boy for the orchestra’s objective of attracting young talent to join the ranks of musicians playing classical music at the highest level,” says Wataka.

There are two staple orchestra pieces which audiences will be familiar with, “Overture to Nabucco” by Verdi and William Tell Overture by Rossini.

The Verdi piece was on the programme of the concert that was cancelled last year during the lockdown and so it is still at the fingertips of the musicians.

The Orchestra now plans to change its calendar of performances from the current three concerts per year to have more regular shows.

“In this way, we can diversify our content based around themes, like film scores, children’s music, symphonic music, and even jazz pieces, and audiences can then plan based on their interests,” says Wataka.