When the Nairobi Orchestra held its first concert at the Theatre Royal in Nairobi (later known as Cameo Cinema on Kenyatta Avenue), the performance had just two African bandsmen.
But now more Nairobi residents are speaking the classical music language and young people are showing interest in playing in orchestras.
This December marks the 70th anniversary of the inaugural concert by the orchestra.
Grace Muriithi, one of the longest serving members of the orchestra says when she first joined to play percussions, she found many senior citizens and expatriates who ‘‘were friendly and dedicated.’’
“Today there are many more Kenyans in the orchestra and audiences that mainly consisted of expatriates and corporates have diversified to include many families,” says Grace, who was chairperson of the orchestra for eight years from 2009.
Grace studied music in the UK in the late 1980s because she felt that Kenya needed more music teachers in schools.
Besides giving private lessons, she has taught at Kenton College, Hillcrest and Peponi Schools and trained the Kenya National Youth Orchestra which was set up in 2010.
“The level of interest in classical music has grown over the years and has significantly caught the interest of the younger population,” she says, adding that many of the graduates of the youth orchestra are now playing with the Nairobi Orchestra.
She estimates that more than 3,000 students sit the Associated Board of the Royal School of Music (ABRSM) examination for different instruments at different levels.
According to Grace, the music teachers who are members of the Nairobi Orchestra are a vital link between their students and the orchestra.
Bernadette Muthoni who is current leader of the violin section joined the Nairobi Orchestra in 2014 says it is very gratifying to watch a student grow from the basics of learning to hold an instrument to actually playing it.
She was inspired to take up the string instrument after hearing Mendelssohn Violin Concerto playing on the radio. “I couldn’t believe that you could express so much with an instrument so I bought one and began lessons,” she says.
The orchestra owns a few instruments including a double bass, a viola, a cello, a clarinet, and five timpani though most players use their own instruments.
Bernadette says, there are higher standards of classical music training in the country and more opportunities bring created for musicians.
“At the moment the music circle is small and every one knows each other but in 10 to 15 years, perhaps most towns will have their own orchestras,” she says.
The lines between classical and other genres are not far apart, according to Bernadette who was part of a string quartet that played on the TV pop music show Coke Studio Season 2.
“Training in classical music equips one with versatility to play any other genre, from pop to jazz,” she says.
The Nairobi Orchestra has also made a deliberate effort to include music composed and/or arranged by Kenyans in its concert repertoire.
In June, the orchestra performed “Concerto for Tuba” by Njane Mugambi, which provides a perspective of Kenyan music in a classical music setting performed by Jennifer Wafula.
Njane first conducted a performance programme for the orchestra in 2001. He later graduated with a Master’s degree in Music Education from Kenyatta University.
“It is not possible to commission pieces by the composers but they can enjoy the prestige of having their works being performed by the Nairobi Orchestra,” says Grace.
In 2003, Duncan Wambugu became the first Kenyan director of a major choral work with the orchestra. The following year, he became the first Kenyan to direct an entire concert by the Nairobi Orchestra.
“There is a growing interest in the field of classical music and we’ll see many more Kenyan conductors in the years to come,” says Ken Wakia who conducted the orchestra in 2006.
The Choral Directors Trust that has just been registered is working on several partnerships including exchange programmes with conductors in the US.
This weekend’s concert at the Braeside Theatre in Nairobi will be the commemoration of a milestone for the ensemble. The orchestra holds three concerts every year coinciding with the school terms and a similar number of choral concerts accompanying the Nairobi Music Society.
This weekend’s programme consists of Shubert’s “Unfinished Symphony No.8” Dvorak’s “Symphony No. 8” and “Peter and the Wolf” by Prokofiev.
There is an audition held to select players for each of the concerts that take place during the year.
“It takes not just good musicians to try out for the concerts but also brave personalities,” says Grace.
Each concert will have 10-12 rehearsal sessions, which increase in intensity towards the performance. The Nairobi orchestra mainly depends on income generated from concert ticket sales and the performers are not paid a fee.
“Ticket prices are very subsidised because we need to retain the full house that turns up for our concerts,” she says.
John Sibi-Okumu who will be guest narrator in “Peter and the Wolf” for the third time with the orchestra (he previously did so in 1991 and 1997) says: “It is always an education to collaborate with people who work at the disciplined and cheerful improvement of their musicianship, purely for the love of it and for nothing, in payment.”
The guest conductor for this weekend’s concert is Peter Evans from the UK who first worked with the orchestra in 2005.
“There is a special bond among the players who all seem to know each other which is quite rare among the orchestras that I have conducted around the world,” says Evans.
He says the diversity of backgrounds also contributes to the beauty of the performance. “Last time I was here, seven years ago, I counted about 15 different nationalities represented in the orchestra,’’ he says.
Only eight players remain in the current line-up from that time and the string and brass sections have doubled in size. There were 37 players on stage in March 2010, while this weekend’s concerts will feature 62 musicians.
The Nairobi Orchestra also enjoys a relationship with other teaching institutions especially the Kenya Conservatoire of Music, which was started in 1943, just four years before the orchestra’s first performance.
Richard and Julia Moss have been involved with the orchestra both as musicians and administrators for more than five decades.
Richard, 82, was first posted to Kenya in 1959 to work as a land surveyor in the colonial government. In later years, he would publish the “Nairobi A to Z” street atlas.
He joined the Kericho Music Ensemble where he met Julia who was born in Londiani and had graduated from the prestigious Royal Academy of Music in London.
While Richard played violin/viola and bassoon, Julia played piano and clarinet.
“It was quite fun because we were young and people would travel from Nairobi to join us playing music,” recalls Richard.
The Nairobi Orchestra suffered a lull during the emergency period of British rule and the music was only revived in the late 1960s, well after independence.
The couple married in 1965. Julia, who is now in her 70s, first played flute in the orchestra in 1967 and through the years has played other woodwind instruments like oboe, clarinet, and eventually bassoon.
“Richard and I have played every instrument in the orchestra, as the need arises,” she says.
From the late 1960s, Julia taught flute, clarinet and piano at Kenya High School, Alliance Girls High School and spent seven years teaching at Kenton College from 1972. Together with her husband, she also taught music at Hillcrest School from 1980 until their retirement in the 2009.
Richard who served three different terms as chairman of the Nairobi Orchestra has traced its history and that of associated ensembles in his book “Quavers near the Equator.”
In 2010, Queen Elizabeth awarded Richard and Julia with member of the British Empire MBE honours for services to classical music in Kenya.
The Nairobi Orchestra has had a long association with schools with both musicians drawn from the school programme and volunteers working at different schools.
The current chair of the orchestra James Laight is among music volunteers who taught at Starehe Boys Centre.