Cape youth choir hits the right notes in US
Tough practice schedule for demanding technical repertoire pays off for diverse Mother City singers, writes Janine Stephen
Cape Town Youth Choir conductor Leon Starker’s favourite quote is by the American poet Mary Oliver: "We need beauty because it makes us ache to be worthy of it." Singing, he believes, is one art that allows humans to "briefly touch" transcendent moments of beauty.
Earlier in April, 32 members of the choir, aged between 16 and 30, shared a repertoire, Songs of Loss and Hope, with US audiences in New York and Boston. It included highly technical pieces such as Hendrik Hofmeyr’s Gloria and Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi’s unearthly Canticum Calamitatis Maritimae (memorable for 17-year-old soprano Lorena Marais’s solo). More accessible items included Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s Homeless and renditions of traditional songs and hymns such as Indodana and Ukuthula. All were sung in the original languages.
The tour highlight was a performance in the 600-seat Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall on April 3 — something of a pilgrimage site for audiophiles and classical musicians. The choir received two standing ovations.
It also sang at Yale University’s Battell Chapel, Harvard’s Memorial Church as well as at other venues.
Some members visited Times Square and took in a Broadway show.
Listening to the choir shape and test the boundaries of the human voice is an extraordinary experience — even in the confines of a high school hall. Individual tones melt and merge into a larger creature.
As Saskia Welz, the youngest choir member at 16, says: "It’s fascinating to see how the choir becomes like a machine.
"Leon is the motor and I am a mere cog. But I have a lot of power, helping the machine to function without a glitch."
The "cogs" are diverse and interesting. They include the sons and daughters of a psychiatric nurse, an editor, a South African Revenue Service call-centre manager and an architect. Most members have been in choirs during their school careers; some study music.
Jabulani Nyathi, 20, from Nelspruit, sang in the Drakensberg Boys Choir. Marais studies singing and piano at St Cyprian’s High School, Cape Town. Hlumelo Marepula, 21, was raised by her Eastern Cape-born mother and now studies civil engineering at the University of Cape Town.
Singing at this level is demanding. There are two-hour rehearsals twice weekly and more before a tour.
Transport to practice, especially to and from townships, is also a limiting factor.
His programme notes point to sociopolitical matters, including the black lives matter movement
"We find that for every eight or nine people that pass an audition, only two or three are still choir members a month after joining," says Starker. "A lot of the music we sing is technically very demanding."
Marepula was so keen that she "e-mailed the director and organised a private audition. I wasn’t even close to the level of professionalism that the choir was at, but Leon saw potential. And now, here we are."
Welz, who likes playing Bob Dylan on a guitar at home, says the choir is "an incredible way to express one’s emotions". She comes home after rehearsals on a "choir high".
Pronunciation of the various pieces is vigorously taught; understanding the words is as important for emotional reach as the notes. The choir tries to get a mother-tongue speaker to help decode each piece.
Songs of Loss and Hope were chosen to "explore loss of life, home and dignity in the music and also to search for a solution to a sense of despair that can threaten to overwhelm one in uncertain times", says Starker.
An information technology manager with a degree in chemistry and maths, the chori conductor also holds an MMus in choral conducting. His programme notes point to sociopolitical matters, including the Black Lives Matter movement.
Many of the pieces in the repertoire are religious, but articulate wider concerns.
Ideas spark and seethe through the arrangements. Moonlight Sleeping on the Midnight Lake, a lament from Homeless, is followed by Canticum Calamitatis Maritimae, dedicated to those who died when the MS Estonia sank in 1994.
Horizons is a South African piece sung from the point of view of the San, inspired by a 16th-century painting of a European ship.
Starker commissioned three new pieces for the US tour, two by choir members.
One is a setting of Psalm 133 in Afrikaans, created by bass singer Simon Bethell, 27. The other was a reaction to traditional Zulu prayer, Ukuthula, by prize-winning composer Conrad Asman, called On a Night.
"The third piece, May My Tears Quench My Thirst by [Zimbabwean-born musician and composer] Tanyaradzwa Tawengwa, was based on a poem of which a part was trending on social media in 2016," says Starker.
The poem was Warsan Shire’s What They Did Yesterday Afternoon.
"It touched me deeply and I asked Tawengwa to set it to music for the tour."
The programme notes also touch on the life of Mxolisi Matyila, a teacher in Alice who composed Bawo Thixo Somandla on the spot in his classroom after being dismissed. He and his pupils wept and sang until the circuit inspector who had delivered the bad news decided to reconsider. "Being a part of the choir has taught me that there is nothing more important than loving your fellow man," he says.
"It has been a life-changing experience to be able to embody this message in the way we treat one another in the choir, but also in the music that we perform," Nyathi says.
Starker says singing can, in the words of a Norwegian hymn, take one over the "stjernebru" — bridge of stars — to glimpse the other side.
• The Cape Town Youth Choir will perform Songs of Loss and Hope at two concerts in Cape Town on April 22 and 23. See Cape Town Youth Choir for details.