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Hosts’ warm embrace makes choirs’ trip to South Africa unique

  • Choirs trip
    Choirs trip  The William & Mary Choir and Botetourt Chamber Singers perform with the African Harmonies Male Choir and Nazareth Youth Choir at Old Apostolic Church in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, South Africa.  
  • St. Mark's Cathedral
    St. Mark's Cathedral  The William & Mary Choir sings at St. Mark’s Cathedral in George, South Africa;  Courtesy photos
  • Leading the Choir
    Leading the Choir  (left to right) William & Mary Director of Choirs James Armstrong, South African composer Mokale Koapeng and William & Mary Associate Director of Choirs Jamie Bartlett in Pretoria, South Africa.  Courtesy photos
  • Good Hope
    Good Hope  The William & Mary Choir and Botetourt Chamber Singers at the Cape of Good Hope, Cape Peninsula, South Africa;  
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by Jennifer L. Williams

William & Mary singers started off in their usual formal performance mode.

But by the end of their summer trip to South Africa, the W&M Choir and Botetourt Chamber Singers had warmed up to a very different way of experiencing music.

The choir has done an international tour every three years since 1978, mostly in Europe. But this summer’s visit to South Africa May 17-June 1 was unique because almost every concert was a joint performance with a South African choir.

Music trip to South Africa

The students participated in a workshop before each concert where singers from both countries taught each other a song, interacting and having lunch and social time before performing together. Physical movement, both by performers and the audience, is also part of the indigenous musical experience in South Africa, said Jamie Bartlett, W&M associate director of choirs and conductor of the Botetourt Chamber Singers.

“At first, our wonderful, perfect William & Mary students who do everything perfectly the first time were uncomfortable and out of their comfort zone,” Bartlett said. “But by the second, third and fourth song, they were up there rocking and dancing; the transformation was just phenomenal — the smiles on everybody’s faces, the real joy and participation and understanding of what this really meant.”

James Armstrong, W&M director of choirs and conductor of the W&M Choir, said that music is an integral part of everyday life in African cultures. Singing is a way of expressing emotions as well as the struggle for freedom in a place where apartheid historically separated the races.

Students were deeply affected by the level of attention and participation their hosts invested in the preparation and performances.

“The audience — that was what really blew me out of the water,” said choir member Meg Collins ’18. “Audiences there are so much more passionate and expressive, I feel like, than audiences we normally perform to, especially the type of group that we are. That’s what I was really surprised at and what was really great.”

Nathaniel Clemens ’17, who sings with both groups and served as a student tour manager, said one of his favorite performances was at the Holy Cross Anglican Church in Soweto. After a church service, W&M singers shared a concert with youth, semi-professional and church choirs.

After the concert, the local choir invited all of the guest choirs to sing as a collective ensemble, teaching them some traditional pieces by ear involving a soloist who would lead each phrase, a response from the ensemble and synchronized movement.

“Although we struggled a bit with the text, we were thrilled to be welcomed with open arms and open hearts into a different culture through music and embraced the opportunity to sing and dance with our new friends,” Clemens said.

“Throughout the performance, our joy could be felt throughout the church, and members of the audience often stood up to join in the singing or waved their hands and fingers to show they were pleased.”

Armstrong said that everybody present was a participant, with no distinction between who sings and who doesn’t.

“The audience, of course, is totally engaged,” he said. “Hands are up waving in assent. Something moves them, out comes ululation. Now more hands are waving. So the experience for them is an absolutely vital one. And it was just wonderful, wonderful to see.”

The W&M Choir and Botetourt Chamber Singers performed separately and together in concert. South African composer Mokale Koapeng wrote an original composition “Wings of Peace and Love,” commissioned by the tour company especially for the W&M groups to sing together on tour.

The tour, including historical sites and safari animal parks, started with a performance hosted by the Ovuwa Cultural Ensemble at the University of Pretoria on May 19, and continued with performances at Holy Cross Anglican Church in Soweto, St. Mark’s Cathedral in George, Old Apostolic Church and National Library of South Africa in Cape Town and the Company’s Garden park in Cape Town after the final performance was canceled because of student protests at the University of Cape Town.

The W&M students shared concerts with the University of Pretoria choir, a church choir, the African Youth Choir, township choirs in Johannesburg and Cape Town and the nationally-renowned Imilonji Kantu Choral Society.

A cappella performance is a specialty of the indigenous folk traditions of southern Africa, Armstrong said, adding that the choirs the group heard were fantastic.

“I wanted the students to go to a place where they could experience and feel what it’s like to have singing really like food and drink, not something which is set aside apart from life, but something that’s essential to life,” Armstrong said.

In other summer travels, the William & Mary Orchestra trekked to Paris May 16-24. Students toured the city and performed at La Madeleine and the Church of Saint-German Des Pres. A couple of professionals from Orchestre Colonnes joined them in performing, according to Orchestra Director David Grandis. The orchestra performed Beethoven’s “4th Symphony,” Barber’s “Canzonetta” for oboe and strings with Emily Chrisman ’17 as oboe soloist, Vaughan-Williams’ “English Folk Song Suite,” Fauré’s “Pavane” and Mauldin’s “Petroglyph.”

“Playing Fauré in La Madeleine had a special meaning since he was the principal organist there at the end of the 19th century,” Grandis said.

For Bartlett, the historical parts of the tour in South Africa were more immersive than those on past trips. She talked about the overall experience of seeing the historic prison on Robben Island where former South African President Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for anti-apartheid activities, and driving past miles and miles of township shanty towns.

Armstrong noted that the educational experience for students was immeasurable.

“Opening up these worlds, you can see them all becoming themselves,” he said.