30 Years of Democracy A Celebration. CPO and CPO Afri-Arts Choir

SYMPHONY CONCERT REVIEW. At the Cape Town City Hall, on 17 June, 2024. 30 Years of Democracy – A Celebration. CPO and CPO Afri-Arts Choir. Conducted by Brandon Phillips and Monwabisi Mbambani. Soloists: Nobulumko Mngxekeza-nzira (soprano), Bongiwe Nakani Mcetywa (mezzo soprano), Zolina Ngejane (mezzo soprano), Sipho Fubesi (tenor), Luvo Rasmeni (baritone), Tina Mene (soprano). ALBERT COMBRINK reviews.

A celebration that not only shows us who we are, but who we can be.

One cannot generalise about what constitutes “African music”: a continent with over 3000 spoken languages, will have as many – and more – musical traditions. But perhaps it is fair to say that African music, especially music of celebration, is not usually a “concert” animal: the audience is expected to join in, move, sing along.

So, I take my hat off to the CPO management for attempting to build – and cross – a lot of bridges in one event. We had a concert-work. A world premiere, no less, on the scale of a short symphony or large cantata for chorus, soprano solo and orchestra. And we had the more popular, celebratory set of choral songs, in the first half.

The atmosphere was a tad apprehensive at the beginning – a lot of new music on the programme with not much context to get a handle on – as one chorister said, when I asked her about the content: “Oh, Mandela, Freedom, 30 years, WhatWhatWhat…”

Cape Town’s “Next best Thing”

As it turns out, the audience had a splendid evening and very little “WhatWhatWhat”. The chorus, trained by Bongiwe Nakani Mcetywa , made a gloriously full, in-tune, well-rounded and energetic sound, with good diction and breath control. We absolutely have to hear this chorus again, I do not care in what – Elijah, Messiah, Don Carlos, Mahler Third Symphony. This chorus could/should become Cape Town’s “Next best Thing”. Music that requires some really controlled soft singing was not on the programme tonight, so I look forward to anything they perform in future that challenges an all-rounded choral technique. I don’t know whose idea this was, but give them a Bells.

The programme styled the first half as “Folk Songs”. Highlighting a “Folk-Song” element, however, does reveal the fact that many South Africans are not in agreement as to what those folk-songs constitute, and many still do not know what they are, let alone the names of our composers of colour, and what their main works are. After tonight, that will have changed for at least the people in the audience.

Artistic integrity

What a joy to hear our great anthem, Plea for Africa, sung with such love, beauty and artistic integrity by Vienna State Opera alumnus Bongiwe Nakane. The problem of variable orchestration skills and experience was simply overcome by hiring an excellent arranger, Damien Philander, a musician who hails from the rich training ground and work-experience provided by the extended New Apostolic Church musical community.

Sadly, no composer biographies were on the programme and no texts or summaries. Without a shadow of a doubt, awareness of this content, makes for a better listener experience.

6 Folk Songs for Choir and Orchestra, orchestrated by Damian Philander, opened the programme.

1. Mzantsi Khula by Sithembiso Sister, is one of the SASCE (South African Choral Eisteddfod) commissioned products that has become known throughout the country. Basically, a patriotic song for the South to rise, there were some issues between podium and performing forces and some of the breaks between sections seemed arbitrary rather than finely tuned. Sister seems to separate the musical worlds of his folk-music projects from his soul and pop music, which has a very different sound.

2. Ukhozi olu Maphiko (Eagle on Wings) written by educator Ntuthuko Sibisi is based on the Grade 12 Xhosa set work by N. Saule. The song tells of a war victim overcoming adversity. “The whirlwinds of war move the body” and one’s hair stands on end when reading about the terrible conditions that this young man went through in the fight for the freedom of the black man.

3. Mama We Sizwe by Sibusiso Njeza. Sipho Phubezi thrilled in this song about Winnie Mandela, whose love for the people of the country, is compared to the size and the beauty of the sea.

4. Madiba: The Opera (Final Act 1) by Sibusiso Njeza. Njeza is active in South Africa as a choir conductor, teacher, arts administrator, facilitator of music workshops and masterclasses, composer, and an adjudicator for local and national competitions for the last 20 years. His three operas include Madiba: The African Opera which had its world premiere at the State Theatre in 2014.  Intended as the retelling of little-known stories about Mandela, the opera is the brainchild of Mandela’s cousin, Unathi Mtirara, who wrote the libretto based on history garnered in part from Mandela himself.

Act 1: After the death of his father, Mandela is raised by the Regent King Jongintaba Mtirara along with his cousin, Justice Mtrirara.  After attending a Wesleyan school, Mandela goes to Fort Hare where he gets expelled for involvement in a boycott again university policies.  He rejects an arranged marriage and he and his cousin steal cows from the king to pay for their tickets to Johannesburg. The Act 1 Finale is full of joyful optimism and Baritone Luvo Rasmeni showed why he has been rising to prominence as one of the country’s important baritones. Nobulumko Mngzekeza-Nzira’s high notes shone out above the ensemble with ease. A delight.

Reviews of the original opera were mixed: critique was laid at the story and there were such critical gems as “It showed flaws in structure, for example, it lacked an Overture” – And we all know that all operas have to have Overtures? Do we? What did Puccini know, anyway… The music was well-received, and this night we could hear why.

5. Amabutho by Bongani Magatyana is a powerful song about Oliver Tambo’s rise to prominence and his importance in the struggle. Magatyana is a music director, composer, and theatrical producer. Born in Cape Town in a township called Old Crossroads; his father was a self-taught choir conductor in the Old Apostolic Church (OAC). Magatyana’s father taught him to read and write tonic solfa music notation at a very young age, and he dreamed of becoming a church choir conductor like his father. He conducts a 120-voice OAC choir as well as a male community choir. His folk-inspired choral compositions—popular pieces for South Africa’s major choral competitions—are performed by choirs across South Africa and internationally.

6. Nelson Mandela by Lihle Biata, is one of the SASCE 1919 commissions. Biata is involved in the Western Cape Choral Music Association (WECCMA) and has composed a number of popular choral works

It is not clear if the Plea for Africa by John Bokwe was part of the set or intended as a built-in encore, but it was the perfect end to the first half.

John Knox Bokwe (15 March 1855 – 22 February 1922) was a South African journalist, Presbyterian minister and as composer, was one of the most celebrated Xhosa hymn writers and musicians. He is best known for his compositions Vuka DeborahPlea for Africa, and Marriage Song.

As a young boy, Bokwe ran errands and worked for Dr. James Stewart’s family. It was also in their house that he learnt to play the organ and the piano. In the same year Dr. Stewart took him into the general office of the Lovedale Mission as messenger, and later as his secretary, a post he filled until he left Lovedale in 1897. Meanwhile, in 1869, he was admitted into the mission’s college department, where he was to remain until 1872. (Read more about this remarkable man at https://www.johnknoxbokwe.com/

Rise of the Hunter

The world premiere of Warren Bessey’s Rise of the Hunter was an occasion for excitement. In interviews, notes and talks, much was made of the “powerful musical journey through history which compels us to consider the indigenous voice and deeply reflect on where we stand concerning human rights and righteous humanity in South Africa.” Fair enough, and a beautiful sentiment on which to build an engaging work. Whether all that translated into a listener-experience is up to the listener to decide.

In rehearsal, the work felt a tad relentless and repetitive, but in the concert-situation, it filled its half-hour with engaging and entertaining material without overstaying its welcome. The soprano soloist was occasionally a bit overwritten in the middle-register. At that point in the evening I had lost the provided text – the composer had walked off with my programme! – and I was reluctant to open my phone to check the words on the emailed programme, mid-concert. I was thus at a loss for figuring out which bit of story went with which bit of music. I felt lost and berated myself for losing my piece of paper, and at that point, the work itself did not come to my rescue. All I could do, was sit back and watch the spectacle.

The work relies heavily on some very busy percussion-playing, and without too much fuss, the work could be turned into a percussion-concerto. Block writing and juxtapositions made for interesting textures, and I am sure I was not the only one to hear the ghost of Elena Kats-Chernin’s ballet Wild Swans make an appearance in the string writing in the final section, or the loud Cataclysmic Minimalism of Jon Leifs. Some hints of Steve Jablonsky’s Enders Game built the work to a final, rousing climax, and it seems the audience really enjoyed the work.

Sadly, there were some empty seats. There were also new faces in the audience. Some audience members ululated during the performance, and some other audience members looked at them. In previous years they might have sneered. We are growing closer together as a country, as we learn about each other. But rather than learn about one another’s politics, tonight, we learnt about one another’s songs. And that can only leave one hopeful for the future.

What: 30 Years of Democracy – A Celebration. CPO, CPO Afri-Arts Choir
Reviewer: Albert Combrink