by CCID 18 Jun 2019

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Brandon Phillips on his musical journey

Brandon Phillips is not only resident conductor of one of the busiest and accomplished orchestras in Africa. From time to time, as he is doing during the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra’s Winter Season, he happily puts down his baton and picks up his bassoon. In this interview, he tells us more about his extraordinary journey with a Cape Town institution and how music touches his professional and personal life.

“It’s good to be back on the bassoon seat,” says Brandon, who is not conducting the CPO’s Winter Symphony season (which ends on 27 June) at the Cape Town City Hall. Instead, he has taken up his position as principal bassoon, once more joining the musicians he usually leads from the podium to play under the batons of three illustrious visiting conductors: American conductor Robert Moody, artistic director of the Marine Band of the Royal Netherlands Navy Arjan Tien, and Daniel Boico, associate guest conductor of the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra who has just been appointed music director of the MAV Orchestra in Budapest.

As a former pupil of Arjan Tien, Brandon has particularly enjoyed playing in the orchestra under the baton of the mentor he admires for his ability to draw wonderful sound from an orchestra. “It has certainly been a highlight for me,” he says. Another highlight has been the programme itself which features works by Tchaikovsky (Symphony No. 4), Bruckner (Symphony No. 4), Kalinnikov (Symphony No. 1) and Rachmaninov (the Symphonic Dances). “In our first week, we performed the fantastic Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4 which has always been one of my favourite symphonies,” he says. The final highlight will be Cape Town Philharmonic Youth Orchestra (CPYO) - of which Brandon is artistic director and conductor - performing the Ruslan and Ludmila overture by Glinka, as a curtain-raiser for the concert on 27 June.


A highly regarded and sought-after conductor, Brandon started playing musical instruments at the age of 11. He chopped and changed until he fell in love with the bassoon. After school he enrolled at the University of Cape Town’s College of Music, where his musical studies culminated in his receiving a BMus (Hons) in solo bassoon in 2005. The Mitchells Plain-born conductor rose to prominence as the winner of the CPO’s inaugural Len van Zyl Conductors’ Competition in 2010. He then spent time in America, studying conducting at Northwestern University in Chicago with Victor Yampolsky and as a conducting intern with the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, where he honed his conducting skills.

In 2015, he was appointed resident conductor of the CPO. He is currently the principal bassoon of the CPO and the artistic director and conductor of the Cape Town Philharmonic Youth Orchestra. He works with many South African orchestras and was awarded the Western Cape Government’s award for Outstanding Achievements by the Youth in 2012.


Brandon’s musical journey has gone “very smoothly” and has been filled with “fantastic music”. Naturally, there have been challenges along the way, but, ever optimistic, he says they are “quickly forgotten and erased”. Most conductors face challenges, he admits, and says the trick is to be well prepared - and on your toes - so that you can minimise or avoid them. There are the inevitable scary moments that usually involve young soloists. “There have been a few moments when a soloist has skipped a bar and the orchestra and I, after getting that initial shock, have had to catch him or her almost immediately. But that shock makes you even more focused,” he concedes.

He has also had hair-raising moments conducting the CPO for select performances with the  Cape Town City Ballet. “I love conducting ballet,” he says, “but it can be hair-raising when you stand on the podium for the first run of a performance, and you see the orchestra in the pit and the stage setting of the ballet. It’s very intimidating at first, but on the downbeat, all the nerves disappear.”

He is set to work with Cape Town City Ballet once more, this time conducting a production called Amaranth, featuring the work of George Balanchine, followed by a special season of the classic, Sleeping Beauty, which will feature overseas guest artists from The Royal Ballet, among others. “I am fortunate to work with Cape Town Ballet again in July and August on these two amazing productions,” he notes.


Like many artists performing at the highest level, Brandon has pre-concert rituals that help to calm his nerves: “I always say a little prayer before a performance, asking the Lord to help me lead the orchestra through my actions and gestures. I also think of my late dad, teachers and think of my mom who has been blind for the past five years due to diabetes and is currently receiving dialysis for her kidneys. This breaks my heart but at the same time it is a huge motivation for me as well as my work allows music to touch the souls of the audience and move them.”


When he is not involved with the CPO or CPYO, Brandon devotes time and energy to his young family. Married with a three-year-old daughter, he and his wife are expecting their second child, a boy, in about five months’ time. His daughter is also musical, he says, and loves to sing. “I demonstrate many instruments to her, and she loves it. We often sing together while I accompany her on my guitar,” he says. A versatile musician, Brandon also sings and plays a myriad musical instruments including woodwinds, strings and brass. He listens to various genres of music to unwind. “I enjoy every genre of music. I think as musicians we have to appreciate all types of music to develop and grow,” says the conductor whose ultimate dream is to one day conduct The Berlin Philharmonic or The Philadelphia Orchestra.

  • For more information on the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra’s upcoming performances, visit
  • From 22 June until 7 July, Cape Town Ballet presents a triple bill of exciting and diverse works namely, George Balanchine’s Serenade, Frank Staff’s Transfigured Night and Christopher L. Huggins’ Enemy Behind the Gates. And from 17 August until 31 August, they’ll present Sleeping Beauty, the timeless story of Princess Aurora.

IMAGE: Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra