Thursday, July 7, 2011

Chills at the National Arts Festival - Grahamstown

The National Arts Festival is an impressive collection of diverse musicians and artists representing the best of South African culture as well as from overseas. These two weeks of non-stop events is a testament to the incredible marketing and management staff of the festival who attract audiences ranging from the conservative to the thoroughly Bohemian. Grahamstown is a charming college town which one would imagine is quite peaceful and tranquil for 50 weeks of the year.  Theatre, classical music, jazz and everything in between finds its niche at Grahamstown and everyone seems eager to be a part of the events, resulting in a few more daring repertoire choices by a few ensembles which was nice to see.
Our own experience at the festival was overwhelmingly positive with one distinct exception; the temperature. Now writing as someone who has spent 22 years living in Chicago and Rochester, NY, I am no stranger to the cold. I am not used to, however, having the cold follow me into the pit. The beautiful Monument Theatre, one of the central venues of the festival, is built of stone and quite massive. The pride in this venue comes from the tragic burning of the last theatre, a result of a faulty heating system. Thus the situation today is that the theatre simply has no heat. When performing "Swan Lake" with the Cape Town City Ballet Company, the frustration would mount as we huddled by the small space heaters that our orchestra managed to fit in the tight space. As an oboist, temperatures dipping below 13C/55F not only affected one's concentration on a rather demanding part, but made for a simply exhausting performance experience. The moment we had a few bars rest, I would begin the ritual of attempting to keep the oboe's head joint from freezing, swabbing out the instrument and re-wetting the reed as to compensate for the exceptionally dry atmosphere that the little space heaters were creating.  As if that wasn't enough, this particular production of "Swan Lake", while beautifully performed by the ballet company, chose to frequently release dry ice "forest mist" which would then cascade down into the pit causing a briefly moist breeze followed by extreme cold when it evaporated. The audience was not spared from these chills as they all came prepared with heavy coats and blankets for the performance. I suppose one amusing element was that the loboe was so cold once that I could actually get the "low A" to sound as a "low A-flat"...
Cold weather aside, it was inspiring to see the enthusiasm and excitement of the festival, especially when it came to advertising. With literally hundreds of performances, lectures, and exhibits to see in such a short time, the marketing prowess of certain artists really came through as they battled for their next audience. There was everything from strategically placed flowers with performance info at restaurants, free demos and excerpts of shows at the restaurants and creative Facebook updates.
The overall impression of the National Arts Festival is that the organizational staff should be commended on their year-long efforts to promote, run and report back on all of the high-quality events. This festival has everything going for it, with the exception of unnecessarily cold venues which is a turn off for both artists and audiences. With that being said, I still greatly look forward to returning next year!