As It Is In Cape Town

`AS IT IS IN CAPE TOWN . . .’

First-class choirs can’t be created without the occasional clanging note

By

HILARY BASSETT

As anyone who saw the movie “As it is in Heaven” will know, creating a good choir out of a rich assortment of people connected by nothing more than their love of singing is no simple matter. The Symphony Choir of Cape Town may not boast quite the drama of its famous Swedish counterpart, but it’s had enough clashes, turbulence, discordant notes and big bangs in the past few years for its present harmony to be well worth celebrating.

The Choir is now working towards a concert of Mozart’s Coronation Mass,and the seldom performed Vesperae Solennes de Dominica at the Bishop’s Chapel on June 19. The story of how it reached the standard required for such works is inspiring, and has much to do with its impassioned young conductor Alexander Fokkens. If you thought that all conductors do is wave their arms around on the night, think again.

Two years ago this choir was on its deathbed. “I saw myself as presiding over its seemingly inevitable dissolution,” wrote the chairman, the late Wallace Molteno, in his annual report. “We were going bankrupt, and morale was low.” A series of musical directors had come and gone, leaving behind discouragement and a faltering vision. A policy of accepting all-comers to boost numbers had worked – except that the now-large choir was altogether too casual. While stopping for coffee may be important too, as Lena points out in the movie, it’s not exactly what the choir is for. Practices were becoming socials, with members attending or not as it suited them. The result was a choir that was impossible to train.

To make matters worse, the rehearsal pianist resigned and a good replacement was hard to find. The figures for concerts were sounding alarm bells and equally discordant were the squawks from the committee: what should they do to attract bigger audiences? Large annual events such as Songs of Praise, which used to be a dead cert for replenishing the coffers, were now running at a loss; the public was no longer interested. Something Drastic had to be done, but what? Should the choir drop the ambitious oratorios that were its mandate to perform, and settle for lighter music? Or, with membership and morale dwindling, should it sing its heart out at one last concert and then disband?

When Alex Fokkens was appointed Musical Director such treacherous notes died away. Alex wouldn’t hear of compromise. “In order to stay casino online alive financially we must accept that performance quality has to be nothing short of excellent,” he told the choir. “If you provide quality, audiences will follow. We have to look at our strengths and rebuild our reputation.”

Alex brought to the task extensive experience of conducting in America, where he did his PhD and taught for six years. He well knew that while an ensemble can be destroyed in no time at all, it takes a long time to build one up. Others might have baulked at the frustration of slow note-bashing sessions, but conductors can’t afford that luxury. Developing patience hadn’t come easily – Alex admits to being as tantrum-prone as Toscanini, in his earlier years. But he’d learnt the hard way – Americans don’t stand for abusive conductors.

Faced with an ensemble that had not performed a standard choral repertoire work in a year, his first task was to reinstate discipline and confidence. The choir were delighted when their first concert, of music by Mozart and Vivaldi, was warmly received. But then complacency crept back, and rehearsals deteriorated. With only two hours a week to train them, and those paying audiences always in mind, Alex was privately tearing his hair out.

“Something Drastic” now arrived with the speed of a guillotine. The concert the choir had been working towards was abruptly cancelled because the standard was not high enough. Henceforth if you wanted to be in the choir, you not only had to attend 80 percent of the rehearsals, worse – you must undergo an audition.

“This had a major emotional effect,” recalls Margaret Barrie, a former chairman. “People who’d sung with the choir for years didn’t pass their audition, and things became stressful.”

But however painful the amputation, the operation was healthy for the body as a whole. The outcome was a vigorous core of 38 sound members, people with strong voices, musical aptitude and a commitment to learning. The choir had turned the corner and slowly regained heart and a belief in itself, attracting both quality new members and stalwart old ones who’d left in despair. The Mozart Coronation Mass. which they performed in June 2009, was acclaimed an international success, a performance to be proud of.

Alex has gradually created a culture in which members not only rehearse hard, they also study at home, using training CDs. Sponsors have partially covered the enormous costs of not just the Director but also the orchestra of over 35 professional musicians required for a concert. Which is not to say, adds current chairman Philip Lloyd, that more sponsors would not be extremely welcome! (If you’re interested call Philip on 021 686 9141 or 083 441 5247)

So Capetonians can heave a sigh of relief that this 30-year-old institution has weathered the storm, and now sounds better than ever. Support them, while giving yourselves the thrill of hearing live magnificent music that has stood the test of time. Book for Concerts via this website, www.scct.co.za; or call 021-794 6850; or email friends@rivera.co.za.

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