Sacred sounds with the Cape Town Chamber Choir

I believe there’s a spark within each of us that turns our hearts to music.  For some, listening to beautiful (or at least catchy) tunes will be enough.  For others, though, we must try to create music, whether it comes from tapping out a beat on a makeshift drum or singing with our voices.  For some, the audience will be only shower tiles or a car interior, but others will seek to share that music with other people.  I caught this “bug” very early on, and for most of my life I have been part of one choir or another.

As I have mentioned before, I first joined the Stadskoor Tygerberg, a city choir that rehearsed quite close to my workplace in Parow.  After a while, though, I found that the group’s strong penchant to converse and rehearse in Afrikaans left me feeling like an outsider.  I am sad to say my progress in that language has been abysmally slow!  I am happier in my new role with the Stadskoor; I come to their events as a photographer and videographer now.

At the start of 2017, I auditioned to join the Cape Town Chamber Choir.  The group rehearses at the Reddam House in Green Point on Monday nights.  Coincidentally, I spend my Tuesdays at the Groote Schuur campus of the University of Cape Town, so the scheduling works out nicely.  Since I recently enjoyed my two performances with the group, I wanted to share that experience with my readers!

First, I must say that the level of musical expertise in the Chamber Choir is substantial.  At my very first rehearsal with the group, I was a bit startled to see how rapidly my section picked up the rhythms and intervals of “Exsultate Deo” by Palestrina.  I soon learned that some of the choristers had strong connections with Cape Town’s Fine Music Radio station.  I felt grateful to have succeeded in my audition; I’d definitely bumbled the sight-reading part.

I learned a lot about the personalities of people in the choir during our weekend-long retreat in March of 2017 at Chelaya Lodge.  We had a lot of fun with the fact that three of the basses are named David (I’m not the only Professor David, either).  The site for our camp was a good complement, with its quirky English decor– I particularly liked the telephone booth.

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The group enjoyed some really lovely food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  On our final night, we had a proper braai, with boerewors and singing, of course!  The retreat was not just about fun (or food), though.  We worked on our music very intently.  At the time, the group intended a formal performance including most of our repertoire in June, so we invested a lot of effort in learning the bones of all the pieces.  The group did agree to a fun group photo while we were there:

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I’ve often thought that I’m not really part of a choir until I have performed with them.  Frustratingly, that seemed to take a really long time.  Our plan for a June performance fell by the wayside since some of the pieces were proving to be rather difficult to get just right.  The group scheduled a less formal church performance during June of 2017, but I was unable to take part because I was in the United States.

The piece that seemed to be the sticking point was “Benedic anima mea Domino,” by Jaakko Mäntyjärvi.  The piece is an aggressively-timed six-part harmony.  Probably the most challenging aspect of the piece is its highly inconsistent time signature, starting in 3:4 but flipping to 5:4 for a single measure even before one has left the first line!  Along the way it pops to 9:8, 6:4, and 4:4 time.  Essentially, the piece is a challenging series of ever-changing eighth-note rhythms.  By the end of our March retreat, I was pretty impressed with the choir’s ability to tackle it, but we didn’t stay in that solid state for long as our attention moved to other pieces.

At long last, our director, Marijke de Villiers Roos, decided on a fixed date for our big show.  On Sunday, September 3, 2017, we would perform at St. George’s Cathedral, at the heart of downtown Cape Town!  I was particularly delighted because I would have the chance to visit the cathedral where the parents of J.R.R. Tolkien were married!  The lead up to the big event, though, would be very taxing.  on top of our usual Monday rehearsals, the group added a pair of half-day Sunday rehearsals on August 20 and 27.  We also added a “dress rehearsal” on Tuesday, August 29.  By the day of the performance, my energy levels were pretty heavily drained; I had served as a photographer for a Stadskoor Tygerberg concert on the first of September.

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Photo courtesy of Elize Erasmus

I was very pleased with the concert we produced.  The cathedral filled up quite nicely for the show, and I loved seeing some young people near the front who were already acquainted with some of the pieces from our set of a dozen or so songs.  The concert was also my first chance to hear Nathan Julius perform (he appears on the front row of the picture above).  Nathan has a truly powerful countertenor voice.  He is one of the South Africans who have benefited from training at the Drakensberg Boys Choir School.  His concert with us was his last in Cape Town before attending Schola Cantorum in Switzerland.  To hear a male voice embrace such high, soaring notes was really unbelievable in that space!

While I was very happy with the subtlety of most of our repertoire, I must say I felt less content with “Benedic anima mea Domino.”  Perhaps our section was rushing or we were working with a slower tempo for performance, but I didn’t feel like our rhythms “clicked” as they should.  I was happy with “The Deer’s Cry” by Arvo Pärt (which requires the choir to show restraint to give a good contrast in dynamics).  For once, our “O quam gloriosum” by T.L. de Victoria sounded like we had something to celebrate!  I left the cathedral that day feeling elated.

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Photo by Natasha Foley

We weren’t done performing, though!  For the next three Mondays, our choir rehearsed with special intensity because we were supporting the Cape Town Baroque Festival!  For four of the pieces presented on the opening night of the festival, specializing in the operas of the Baroque period, our choir provided the choral support.

It was a complete change of pace from the concert at St. George’s.  Our parts had us singing of the joys of love Semele enjoys in the heavens, impersonating shepherds extolling the natural loving to be found in peaceful groves, singing in French of the peaceful forests of the New World, or finally giving stern direction to the cupids guarding Dido’s tomb.  I know I really admired the voices of our soloists, and it was a genuine treat to be conducted by Erik Dippenaar, who can infuse an amazing amount of enthusiasm into the movements of his head (he conducts with his head while both his hands are busy accompanying on the spinet).

In short, I have loved singing with the Cape Town Chamber Choir.  I hope that I can keep up with the group, even as my travel schedule kicks back into gear!  Making it to rehearsal each week can be blocked when I am teaching workshops and contributing research seminars outside Cape Town.  I will just have to do my best.  Singing with these excellent performers is very rewarding!

4 thoughts on “Sacred sounds with the Cape Town Chamber Choir

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