Ofentse Pitse personifies everything we’ve come to love about being a young black woman in the modern age – bold, fearless, resilient, multipassionate, purposeful, creative, and a visionary. As both a senior architectural technologist and first black South African woman to own and conduct an orchestra, she’s boldly breaking frontiers in her own pace and on her own terms. Here, Ofentse shares her journey with Nounouche and her vision for the near future.
Being able to conduct requires the conductor to be a messenger of the composer and understand how to get each musician in the orchestra to transmit a unified vision of the music. Please share some of your rituals in preparing to conduct and understand the message of the composer.
I have a routine that requires me to get both my mind and spirit in tune with what is needed from me musically. What I start with is understanding the context of the music that I will be doing. I then do some research on the period and style of the music, which will assist me in knowing how to best give of myself.
Coupled with that, I need to have a few days by myself, unplugged, with my phone usually on flight-mode for a few hours. I have to be open to my spirit in order to approach the music intuitively, after I have gone through the musical way I have been taught.
I normally do this before rehearsals begin.
Seeing that you’re the first black African woman to own and conduct her own orchestra, it says a lot about this niche music industry. What are some of the overt and covert challenges in this industry that anyone wanting to follow in your footsteps must be privy to or expect? Please also share with us how you still show up as a young back woman despite these challenges.
The first challenge in this industry has to be access. I believe that coming from architecture, which is an extremely male-dominated industry, I got my fair share of ‘preparation’ in that space, so when I transitioned into music, I was already bold enough to exist.
With that, it has been important for me to create my own identity in the spaces I am trying to break into. I am not copying anyone, I am creating and imagining as I go.
You’ve now entered the sphere of being a public figure and with that comes both great admiration but it also opens one up to certain negative engagement especially on social media. How do you navigate social media?
I believe that with this, I have lived vicariously through my colleagues, some of which are my friends. I used to allow a few negative comments from people who would challenge my legitimacy, to get to me. I had to also go through many sessions of therapy to know how to be okay with negative comments and not internalise it.
I am still working through this. I also recognise that with the voice I have established for myself, I cannot respond in the ways I would if I wasn’t in the public eye.
Covid-19 hit all industries badly, but in particular, the music industry. But this is around the time you started this journey as conductor, during the toughest time for the industry. What influenced this decision?
My career began in 2017 actually, when I was 25-years of age. It was not my intention to create a career out of this as I was only doing it to give back to young people.
When I first got recognised for my work, it was at the beginning of Covid-19, which resulted in me having to put a halt on a lot of our plans. I could only work on sharpening my skill as a conductor and continue having extensive online lessons with my conducting mentor and coach, Gerben Grooten.
You are also an architect. How do do you find the balance between conducting and being an architect?
Yes, I am actually a senior architectural technologist. I am currently completing my Master’s degree at Wits university. I am practising part-time. I am not too sure how I am managing. I believe it is due to the fact that I plan out my days meticulously, which allows me to be able to do both.
I also have a solid team behind me which ensures that this machine runs as it should. I have a manager, a strategist, a talent coordinator, as well as a core team on the ground which stands in the gap when I am not available. They are incredible and contribute so much to this business.
Music has my whole heart.
What advice do you have for other young women who also want to have different ventures under their belt and fully explore their multitalentedness in this day and age?
My advice would be – PLAN. I have about three notebooks where I write everything down in order to stay afloat with things. It also takes a lot of discipline. You have to let go of being available for everything and everyone. You have to be okay with the sacrifice.
Which moment stands out to you most since you began this journey?
The highlight(s) of my career has been having young kids, or their parents rather, ask me for school project interviews due to them looking up to me.
The other major highlight I would say, is getting the opportunity to be a commanding voice in unconventional space (where you wouldn’t normally see a conductor).
I was the main speaker at the Veuve Cliquot Bold Women Awards, where I got a standing ovation for my speak and surprise performance of the Veuve Cliquot theme song with an ensemble from my orchestra. After speaking, Basetsana Kumalo opened up her arms and gave me this long hug, which felt like a prayer, and uttered the words “here’s the baton, take it”. That meant EVERYTHING for the little girl in me who used her as a benchmark.
The world of conducting is one that is a mystery to most south africans, who are your top conductors here and abroad and some of your favourite songs to conduct?
True, that’s very true. I have a few favourite conductors who are either close colleagues or friends of mine. Monty Manamela, Chad Hendriks, and ofcourse, I have to include my coach and mentor Gerben Grooten.
Internationally – Rodericks Cox, Kelena Bovel, Anthony Parnther, Daniel Gatti, Gustavo Dudamel, and the late Claudio Abaddo of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.
My favourite piece to conduct are the ones that are not only complex (I love a challenge), but convey an entire story from start to finish. I have noticed that my favourite pieces either speak of heroism, are from an epic movie, or are from pop culture (Beyonce).
Classically – Beethoven’s Egmont overture
African – Mzilikazi Khumalo’s uShaka kaSengzangakhona, Pheleleni Mnomiya’s Kuhle kwethu, Sibusiso Njeza’s Wamuhle Mzansi.
Pop Culture – Beyonce’s Bow Down, Blaxkie’s Kwenzekile, Sun-El’s Musician feat. Msaki’s Ubomi Abumanga.
You mention that you seeked out a mentor, what role has your mentor played in this journey?
My mentor has played the role of a coach, friend, colleague, and father in some instances. He has taught me, more than anything, to carve out my own path and identity in this space which is more than a 100 years old. I cannot be like Beethoven, I cannot be like Tchaikovsky, or Gustav Mahler for that matter. I can only be like Ofentse. I’m currently not mentoring anyone. I feel like I’m still defining the space for myself, so I’m not ready for that as yet.
What’s your suggestion going forward for brands to embrace the women in the creative arts, during Women’s Day and Women’s Month celebrations?
This question comes during a time when I read that Interpol has named South Africa as the rape capital of the world. So to answer this question, I am quite conflicted at what we are celebrating when there is still this harsh reality of the overt danger of being a woman in this land. I would say I would celebrate ‘Women’s safety’ more than ‘Women’s day’.
What can we look forward to from you as a brand in the near future?
Myself and my team are working on some phenomenal projects that include innovation, storytelling, and supreme quality. These will be curated experiences, coupled with some mind-blowing collaborations. Also, there may be a body of work in the midst of all of that.
Any other projects fans should know about and support?
I will be doing a show with Sun-El Musician and Friends on the 2nd of September at the Lyric Theatre. After that, I have other shows that I will be sharing online.
All the info is on my website www.ofentsepitse.com . I am also available on all social media platforms as Ofentse Pitse.
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