THE BRAHMS REQUIEM
Performed in the Cape Town City Hall on Tuesday 15th October 2013 under the direction of Conductor Alexander Fokkens.
A PERSONAL REFLECTION
My first experience of the Brahms Requiem in the same venue some years ago was a disappointment. We had been invited to attend the performance and we were, indeed, looking forward to it.
However, the playing and singing on that occasion might have been word and note perfect, but the performance was both leaden and dismal. As a result of which my wife, Jean, and I agreed to give future airings of this work a miss.
It was with no little sense of unease that I heard Alexander Fokkens announce some while back that the The Symphony Choir would be tackling the work.
Last night, along with the members of the Symphony Choir and members of the Tygerberg City Choir, and accompanied by the UCT Symphony Orchestra, I had the privilege of singing in this awe-inspiring work.
I felt we were on ‘holy ground’…..
I cannot vouch for the performance itself, as I was singing in it! But the difference was unbelievable. Happily, and obviouly from my viewpoint, the diffence lay in the fact that, apart from the singing of the right words and the right notes, from rehearsal one the spiritual significance of the work lay on Alexander’s heart.
His personal belief in the validity of the text as influencing his outlook on grief and death found expression in the Brahms composition. It was clear that Alexander undertood both the experience of grief and the experience of death to be universal, regardless of the individual’s faith persuasion or none. All suffer and grieve when a loved one dies.
Grief is a deeply moving expression, from the depths a person’s being, of love, that another matters. All love is “Blessed” – and, we don’t master grief, we grow in and through the mystery of it. And all are born to live, to live to die; many believing – to die to live! And to die is a “Blessing” at the end of a lived and loved life.
We do not master life, we grow through it towards the mystery of death….and towards the hopelful mystery of a “Blessed” beyond.
And so this profound work begins and ends with the word:”BLESSED”.
This great requiem holds one spellbound with a sense of awe, reverence, wonder. And when prepared and performed in this dimension of the spirit, I for one, cannot but be aware that Brahms has ushered both performers and hearers onto holy ground.
With the work’s opening almost silent heartbeat coming from eternity into the present moment, to the final harp arpeggio rising from the earthly to the heavenlies, Brahms penetrates the human heart saying: “This is about me; about you; about all! Grieving and dying are about love and belonging. In a world where grief and death are shrouded in gloom and fear, they can be seen anew as mysterious blessings, fulfilling blessings, meaningful personal blessings.”
With precisely that understanding, Alexander harnessed his singers and players to perform last night, moulding and holding all in a bond of love and unity… for which I am more than grateful.. . and pray that many others would have experienced something of what I esperienced and have attempted to describe.
Within the past eight days Jean (my wife) and I have had the privilege of experiencing two events which have had a refreshingly profound effect on us, and for me have enhanced my understanding of the word ‘church’!
The first was on Sunday 16 June when we spent ten hours – from 8.00a.m. to 6.00p.m.- in the Good Hope Centre, Cape Town, attending a national Hip-Hop Competition in which our two Johannesburg granddaughters were participating.
Never have we sat through such a long day at any event and so enjoyed it! Never have we endured music at such a pitch and volume and come away without the trace of a headache! And this, I believe, because it was an experience of the vibrancy of young people enjoying themselves; expressing themselves; and sharing their exuberance for life in a spirit of discipline and commitment, with a large ‘congregation’ of young folk and adults, and thereby creating a real sense of community, of belonging. For me it was worship – worthship – a celebration of life in a spirit of love, generated by dedicated teachers/leaders (‘priests/ministers’ – dare I say so?) in a venue conducive to a feeling of complete at-homeness. For me this opened up a fresh insight into the meaning of the word ‘church’…..a diverse community of persons in communion together, celebrating life, the life of their experience in a venue designed to facilitate their giving of themselves in performance and celebration!
As Archbishop Desmond so aptly commented when I shared this with him: “God is still around often in unlikely places. Yippee!”
And then, last evening, eight days later, the Dvorak Mass in D Major – another coming together of young and old in an appropiate venue – St John’s Church, Wynberg – for yet another experience of vibrant togetherness in the bonding effect of music-making under the inspired direction of our conductor (priest/minister?) Alexander Fokkens.
Every performance is embued with spiritual significance. There is a bringing-to-life of the multitude of ‘dead’ notes on the printed score -a ‘resurrection’! There is the disciplined commitment of those gifted to sing, and the accompanist, responding to the interpretive insights of the conductor. And there is the amazing sense of community generated by the corporate spiritual involvement of the listeners. In a very real sense every performance becomes a time of ‘holy’ communion. And all this is to do with worship – worthship! – worthship of the composer’s writing; worthship of the performers singing and playing; worthship of the listeners in attendance.
I was strangely moved by the comment made by my musical wife Jean immediately after this evening’s performance: “It was human”.. That touched me deeply. It was the very first time I had heard such a concise and profound summing up of a concert. Alexander brought the Dvorak score to life, and the instruments at his disposal were all human. And Jean experienced the whole performance as throbbing with life. The humanity of the performers responding to Alexander’s insight to the sensitivity of the work’s dynamics, touching the hearts of the hearers in their humanity. And so the embracing effect, the love-full effect. In fact, the mass effect of the Mass which encapsulates so much of the human experience of passion and peace, of tragedy and triumph. We all mattered worthwhilely – en masse! Indeed, an experience of ‘church’ – communing community! I am convinced that after both these events many went home with hearts full of joy and hope.
Fish Hoek. 24 june 2013
DREAMS COME TRUE
On Sunday, 19th May – the Feast of Pentecost – the day of our final rehearsal before the performance of the Beethoven Symphony No.9 (the Choral) – I heard these words read in St. Margaret’s Church, Fish Hoek where Jean (my wife) and I worship:
“…and your old men shall dream dreams…”(Acts 2.17)
But, its not only old men who dream dreams, it is also young men who dream them! And one of my dreams of some sixty years ago (which has been a recurring dream through the course of these past sixty years) was to sing in a performance of the Beethoven 9th Symphony.
Looking back now to those far-off days when I was a matric pupil at SACS, which was then still at the top of Queen Victoria Street in Cape Town, I remember being introduced to the works of Beethoven by the late Dr. H. Freund, who was president of the school’s Music Society. As a result of which, with adolescent ardour, I wrote this poem (in 1954!):
My spirit soars above the clouds where dwells
In peace the soul of Music’s golden notes:
Creator of concertos; in the world
Of symphonies most brilliant and sublime;
Whose life on earth was tempered with distress
And poverty – now free from pain and want:
Not robbed of music’s notes, deafness despite;
Who had but few to love and call his own.
Oh tranquil shade! Triumphant paths thy works
And toils have made in Music’s wonderland.
Thy brilliant streams of rushing notes and chords
Have irrigated many mortal minds
And made men marvel, gasp, and even weep.
And so it was with almost heart-stopping joy that I heard Alexander announce the possibility of the Symphony Choir joining forces with the UCT Symphony Orchestra and Opera Chorus and soloists in a performance of the Beethoven 9th Symphony.
From the moment of our first rehearsing under the masterful musicianship of our conductor Alexander, and Margaret, his and our accomplished accompanist, it has all been a dream come true. And a huge part of the glory has been the opportunity of working so creatively along with the youthful members of the UCT Opera School under their charismatic director, Professor Kamal Khan. And with members of the UCT Symphony Orchestra under our own Maestro Alexander.
Hence the incredible thrill as the bass soloist – Thato Machona – bursts forth with the opening words – ‘O Freunde’ ‘O Friends’ Glancing around at the gathered singers and instrumentalists there was an amazing sense of belonging….of the togetherness of friends, bonded by the blessed beauty of Beethoven. Added to my dreamings has been to sing under the baton of Maestro Bernard Gueller. I couldn’t believe my ears when it was told that he would be conducting the symphony, and, in the City Hall! For many years Jean and I have revelled in the superb musicianship of Maestro Gueller, having attended the orchestral rehearsals and concerts in the Ciity Hall when he directed the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra. And so, another dream come true on Monday night when the Symphony was performed before a large and happily appreciative audience in the City Hall!
At one point in the symphony we sing: ‘Ahnest du den Schoepfer, Welt?’ ‘Do you sense the Creator’s presence, World?’ The answer bursting forth from my heart was a resounding YES!! And there were many hearts that night full of gratitude for all involved in this deeply spiritual experience; and, as members of the Symphony Choir of Cape Town, especially to Alexander for his vision and adventurousness in forging opportunities for us to perform such glorious works as the Beethoven Ninth Symphony with members of the UCT Music Department.
HARRY WIGGETT Fish Hoek 22 May 2013
MOZART AND THE SPACES IN-BETWEEN
By Nadia Essop
Tonight was concert night, our performance ended hours ago. The music had been rehearsed and performed, the scores and instruments have been packed away, and soon the warm applause from the audience will fade into warm memory.
I remember exactly how our musical director revealed the latest challenge to the choir: ‘This is it, this is perfection!’ We would be performing Mozart’s Mass in C Minor. During the weeks of preparation that followed, our choir master used (what would become) a ubiquitous vocabulary of words and phrases, such as: out of this world, simple yet powerful, one long line, must flow, like elastic, the heartbeat, on one breath, the pulse, purity, and don’t breathe! Of these, my favourite became the spaces, space. Pencil scribbles on my music score can attest to this. I’ve come to understand that space is not the same as pause, nor linger, dawdle or stop. Space –where required, and while never letting go of the rhythm- would elevate the piece, would make it breathe and live. It was this dance between space and rhythm that enthralled me.
I visited Vienna many years ago, and while there I squashed as much as possible into my stay. I saw Lipizzaner horses perform, visited Schönbrun Palace and the Art Nouveau marvels of Otto Wagner, I walked along wide boulevards, and in the footsteps of Beethoven and Strauss. One of my rambles led me to the St. Marc Cemetery where Mozart was presumably buried, unceremoniously as it were, in a mass grave. As luck would have it, I arrived just as a busload of tourists was making their way to Mozart’s grave. I resigned myself to a bench, and waited my turn. The group converged around the grave, a rectangle of green grass with potted flowers, a few candles, at one end a pillar with an angel leaning against it. The tourists laughed, posed for photographs, and returned to their coach. But two figures lingered, a young woman and her child. The woman picked a flower from a nearby shrub. She drew her son close and explained something to him; I wasn’t close enough to hear. They stood quietly for a few minutes. She handed him the flower. He laid it on the grave.
That was 17 years ago. Of all the wondrous sights, sounds and rhythms of Vienna, this is the memory that endures in vivid detail – one small gesture, a small space. (And yes, they were still on time for the bus!)
In the small of night, I take inventory of what remains after our performance of the Mozart Mass. Choir, soloists, orchestra and conductor created space in which to feel, space in which to lose oneself, space in which to wander freely outside the confines of ourselves, our lives, our cultures. Together we created space in which to traverse the spaces which separate us from one another, in which to connect with our communality – our humanity.
All the ubiquitous words our choir master used were significant: one long line flows, a heartbeat, a pulse out of this world, powerful, yet so simple, don’t breathe. Don’t breathe! This is it! A pure heartbeat flows, on one long breath, out of this world.
*The performance of Mozart’s Mass in C by the Symphony Choir of Cape Town, was dedicated to the life and memory of Maike, daughter of our fellow chorister, Carine Fortsch*
13 October 2012
Now that the ‘Star’dust of our Frostiana performance is settling, and all the notes, like The Pasture’s fallen leaves, have been happily raked up, and the temperature of concert night (centigrade or fahrenheit – take your pick) has cooled down, it seems opportune in the loveliness of the afterglow, to focus appreciatively on one star in our glittering constellation that did not shine with us on stage on Tuesday night: MARGARET FOXCROFT!
It is so easy to take an accompanist for granted – and all the more so if that accompanist is a accomplished a musician and as professionally talented as Margaret is. Yet, without Margaret I shudder to think how most of our 50 singers would even begin to ‘get’ their notes, let alone, by painstaking repetition, secure them in their minds. And, without someone who excercises a great degree of stolid patience, rehearsals could be fraught with ternsions and tirades. Margaret is the epitome of patience. Many will be familiar with the oft-quoted words of St. Paul – “Love is patient..”. It is precisely because Margaret loves that she has such a wonderful well-spring of patience – a love for the music, and a love for the music-makers!
To all of us it is evident that Margaret is one with the very essence and spirit of music rooted in every fibre of her being. She has the calm and outwardly peaceful and serene demeanour of a pesron aware of the spiriitual cost of being creative with such a diversity of singers, and the true accompanist’s sensitivity to the conductor’s interpretive approach to whatever is being sung. It is indeed a privilege to experience Margaret playing all four parts at the same time, creating that essential sense of at-one-ness in the body of singers, and at the same time totally at-one with the intentions of the choir-master Alexander – her husband!
I get the feeling that (as in Robert Frost’s The Pasture) in undertaking the training of the Symphony Choir of Cape Town, at the very outset some years ago, Alexander sang softly to her -
“I’m going out to train the Symphony Choir of Cape Town – YOU COME TOO!” And she did!
HARRY WIGGETT 17.05.’12