Magazine article The Spectator

Playing Bach to Hippopotamuses

Magazine article The Spectator

Playing Bach to Hippopotamuses

Article excerpt

Michael Bullivant tells Petroc Trelawny how he became Bulawayo's chief musical impresario

For an extraordinary month in 1953, Bulawayo became the epicentre of culture in the southern hemisphere. In celebration of the centenary of the colonialist and diamond magnate Cecil Rhodes, the Royal Opera House and Sadlers Wells Ballet took up residence. Sir John Gielgud staged and starred in a production of Richard II. The musical programme was left to the Halle Orchestra, who flew in from Manchester with their music director Sir John Barbirolli and gave 14 concerts. A corrugated-iron aircraft hanger was temporarily named 'The Theatre Royal'; it even boasted a royal box from where the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret witnessed an anniversary gala featuring more than 300 visiting performers.

Along with umpiring a cricket match and visiting Rhodes's grave, Barbirolli was called upon to lay the foundation stone of the nascent Rhodesian Academy of Music.

And somehow, after nearly six decades of political upheaval and economic crisis, the academy still functions as a place of musical learning. It lacks a brass faculty right now, but students can study singing, piano, flute and violin. It owns 20 pianos, including two full-size Steinway concert grands, and hundreds pack the main hall for regular video screenings of great operas and ballets.

The Academy's director is a jovial 62-yearold originally from Boston in Lincolnshire.

After Cambridge, Michael Bullivant taught history at a series of English prep schools.

Seeking adventure, he travelled to South Africa, but found all the good teaching jobs had already been snapped up. Then a friend tipped him off about a temporary post as Latin master at Bulawayo's Milton School.

It was the start of a 30-year career that saw him retire as deputy headmaster.

His arrival in Bulawayo coincided with the failure of peace talks between Ian Smith's breakaway Rhodesian government and the African National Congress. 'The terrorist war was raging, ' Bullivant recalls.

'I should of course be calling it the war of independence, ' he adds, with a wry smile.

Even though Smith's regime was beginning to crumble, white settlers still enjoyed a high standard of living.

And they were entertained. Visiting artists in the 1970s included the flautist James Galway, baritone Gerard Souzay and cellist David Geringas. Having not expected much in the way of Western culture, Bullivant was thrilled to discover he could satisfy his passion for music, but had his doubts over the way concerts were run. After writing a critical letter to the Bulawayo Chronicle, he was immediately signed up to the board of the city Arts Council, and became its chairman two years later, a post he has held ever since.

Independence in 1980, and the election of Robert Mugabe as Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, saw Western artists flocking to be part of Africa's exciting 'new nation' - but the party didn't last long. As the economy stagnated, and white settlers packed their bags, musical events became a low priority. But that didn't stop Bullivant and the then conductor of the Bulawayo Philharmonic, Derek Hudson, giving the Zimbabwean premiere of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The concert required the sanction of Mugabe himself, as the 'Ode to Joy' had been the tune appropriated for 'Rise O Voices of Rhodesia', the national anthem during the UDI years. …

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