School choirs unite audience

2011-03-16 00:00

LEARNING to sing to a different tune is what young South Africans do easiest, even if their parents or grandparents find cross-cultural harmonies harder to achieve. Hearing children of all races sing each other’s music is one of the best medicines to heal past divisions and open doors to new possibilities for the Rainbow Nation.

This promise of hope for South Africa was experienced last Thursday during the South African Society of Music Teachers’ choir festival at the Alan Paton Hall, at Maritzburg College. Eight school and regional choirs treated 1 000 parents, grandparents and siblings to the height, depth and breadth of different musical traditions which make our province the multicultural potpourri that we are.

It was one of those humid evenings after a day of 36 degrees, but the heat was forgotten with a hush as the programme opened to Rheinberger’s sublime Abendlied, presented by the Pietermaritzburg and Midlands Youth Choir.

Conductor William Silk’s winsome choices of music were immediately apparent in his delightful rapport with the choir. Their Latin American Atahualpa Yupanqui by Duerme Nigrito and Guy Turner’s Tequila Samba were so freshly pitched and rhythmically authentic that the audience might have been enjoying the equatorial ambience of a taverna folklórica in Bogota, Quito or Cochabamba. Their concluding medley returned us to African roots in deep local soil. Mothers and grandmothers all over the hall ululated to the choir’s Uma Ngihamba Nawe Thuli, Ubizwa Impigogo. Youthful traditional harmony and zestful movement by the choir evoked the festival of jubilation that resounds through the hills during a Zulu village wedding. People of every background in the audience were clearly restraining themselves from dancing in the aisles. Long before his final bow I decided that Silk’s audacious hint to achieve a standing ovation for this debut performance was warranted. It’s not the last we have heard of the Pietermaritzburg Amature Music Society’s (Pams) Youth Choir’s finely tuned musicality.

How could anything match that was the feeling in the hall as Carter High School came forward. They rose to the challenge, piquing interest with their locally written and arranged music. St John’s DSG’s senior choir put the narrative potential of Leonard Bernstein’s I Feel Pretty to good effect, earning a good laugh from the audience.

The highlight of the evening came next as the Pelham choir’s African medley unfolded. Their opening Rain Song ingeniously mimicked the build-up to a KZN thunderstorm, from the first drops, to the torrential downpour and thunderclaps, before tailing off into silence. Just 10 minutes before this piece, the rain for which the whole city had been waiting for weeks, came down in the background timpani on the Alan Paton Hall’s tin roof. This synchrony of rain and song, and the infectious delight of children mimicking rain created the greatest sense of occasion that evening, reminding me of our common dependence on the mercies we receive in creation.

It was not surprising then, after Pelham’s melodic Igxira and throaty Carmina Burana, that the audience gave their second standing ovation, this time without being asked.

Self-abandoned enjoyment, innovation and careful musical choices by the Pams Choir, Pelham Senior Primary School and The Wykeham Collegiate, who seamlessly rendered Schubert’s Psalm 23 alongside a rhythmic Benedictus from a Shona mass, was the recipe for the evening’s finest moments, enabling audience and performers alike to experience music as unselfconscious art, intentional and avoiding sentimentality or cliché. Maritzburg College’s tentative gospel item whet our appetites for more and their bolder rendition of One Voice by Barry Manilow captured the spirit of the whole evening.

Despite the unfortunate absence of music from South Africa’s well-loved Afrikaans choral traditions, I came away with lifted spirits. What a privilege to live in a city that is creating opportunities for children of all languages, cultures and races to learn and cherish one another’s musical heritage. Along with this privilege, Maritzburg has a unique responsibility to share expertise from our exceptionally resourced institutions with schools that have not been able to afford trained music teachers. We need one another’s music.

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