On wings of song


Cape Town’s Youth Choir plans to conquer New York.

About 15 years ago, when he was being interviewed for the position of conductor for the illustrious Cape Town Youth Choir, Leon Starker was asked by the panel to define success. This was shortly after the choir had won top honours at the Llangollen International Music Eisteddfod in Wales. “I told them that, for me, real success would be to sing in Carnegie Hall,” says Starker.

Leon Starker

He got the job and, in 2008, the choir did indeed sing at Carnegie Hall in New York, but alongside a few other choirs, not solo.

Real success meant doing their own concert at Carnegie Hall, so about a year ago Starker decided it was time. “I emailed the people at Carnegie Hall and I asked, ‘How do I book Carnegie Hall?’ They told me and I booked it, there and then! Then I had to look for the money to fund it,” says Starker. “Renting the hall is about $15,000.”

The rest is history – and on 3 April, when the celebrated choir steps on to the stage at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall (“I will book the big hall next time,” vows Starker) it will be a dream come true for him and the choir members.

Carnegie Hall, two blocks south of Central Park on Manhattan, is one of the most prestigious concert venues in the world for both classical and popular music. Built by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie in 1891, the hall was featured in the recently released delightful movie, Florence Foster Jenkins, starring Meryl Streep.

Tchaikovsky gave his debut concert in America there; legendary singers such as soprano Maria Callas and tenors Caruso and Gigli were amongst the greats who made it famous. Mark Twain delivered his last public lecture there in 1906.

Carnegie has also played host to numerous popular music legends, including Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Tina Turner and Nina Simone. (Sissieretta Jones was the first African-American to sing there in 1892.) The Beatles performed there in 1964, followed by the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and numerous rock, blues, jazz and country performers.

The Carnegie complex includes a smaller concert venue, Zankel Hall which seats 599 people, next to the main concert hall. It is named after its sponsors, Judy and Arthur Zankel. That’s the hall Starker hopes to fill.

“When the Cape Town Youth Choir performs there, it will be the culmination of years of hard work for a diverse group of beautiful, extremely talented young people who never fail to wow their audiences,” says Starker, “as well as a not-to-be-missed opportunity to represent Cape Town and South Africa on one of the most famous stages in the world.”

Conductor Leon Starker in rehearsal with the Cape Town Youth Choir

Starker and I are meeting in a coffee shop across the road from the Jan van Riebeeck High School, Gardens, in the shadow of Table Mountain, where the choir practises for hours every Tuesday and Friday night.

Starker remembers when he told the choir that they would be going to sing at the iconic concert hall. “It was after they walked off stage at the World Choir Games in Latvia. The competition had come at the tail end of a concert tour through Germany and the Czech Republic. Comparing the ‘concert’ experience with the later ‘competition’ experience, it was an easy choice to make. In spite of having won two gold medals in Latvia, the real joy of making music lies in telling stories on stage, not in impressing five or six people with score sheets. We hadn’t even got back to the hotel… you can imagine the response!

“Then we started looking for money and we started saving and started thinking about the repertoire.”

The choir is made up of people aged from 15 to 30, some of whom are at school, some are students and others, working professionals – all, from different backgrounds.

“Some have overcome incredible adversity, or made it to university against the odds. But they have all been chosen for their voices and musicality, and they all show up twice a week to practise and sing together. Their dedication and unity are what make this all worth it,” says Starker, who has been conducting the choir since 2003.

It is clear that the love he has for the choir members is strongly reciprocated. “Of every ten people selected, only two or three make it to the end of the first month. The commitment of time is huge. But, more than that, choir members expect of each other a certain level of commitment to the music and to each other. Those who are not comfortable with the commitment don’t last.

“But the ones who last become a ‘band of brothers’, if I may borrow from a TV show set in World War II. They become an incredibly close-knit group and often remain life-long friends.

“There are no ranks in the choir; whether you are a 16-year-old bass or soprano or a 28-year-old tenor, you are equally valued because of your contribution to the music. I am always astounded by this – that the older members treat the young ones as equals. We share a common goal and a common path: the desire to make music that moves everyone who hears it.”

What drives him whenever he is in front of the choir are the words of American poet Mary Oliver: “We need beauty because it makes us ache to be worthy of it.”

Starker completed a BSc degree in Chemistry and Maths as well as the Higher Education Diploma at Stellenbosch University. During his student years he studied singing with Professor George van der Spuy and sang in the Stellenbosch University Choir.

He holds an MMus in Choral Conducting from the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University and is currently enrolled for a DMus in choral conducting at Pretoria University.

In addition to the Cape Town Youth Choir, Starker conducts the St Cyprian’s School girls’ choir and teaches choral conducting at the South African College of Music at the University of Cape Town. His day job is IT Manager at investment firm Vunani Fund Managers. He is married to Louise, who is a music teacher, and they have three daughters.

The Cape Town Youth Choir was founded in 1997 with the name Pro Cantu (meaning “for singing”) and, when it moved from Durbanville to the city in 2011, it changed its name to Cape Town Youth Choir.

The choir has toured South Africa, Europe, Asia and the US and has won gold in a number of competitions for its extensive repertoire, which includes simple folk songs as well as challenging modern pieces.

In 2004, the choir undertook a concert tour of Namibia and in 2006 participated in the World Games in Xiamen, China, winning two gold medals.

In 2008, the choir performed Karl Jenkins’s The Armed Man, a Mass for Peace in Carnegie Hall.

In the same year they won two gold medals at the fifth World Choir Games in Graz, Austria. Since then they’ve performed Arvo Pärt’s Passio (St John Passion) in Cape Town, Stellenbosch and Oudtshoorn and; Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil (in Afrikaans), sung in Salisbury Cathedral, St Paul’s Cathedral and Londerzeel in Belgium.

In 2014, the choir toured Europe with concerts in Hamburg, Berlin, Prague, Bratislava and Riga. They participated in the Bratislava International Music Festival and Competition and won three categories as well as the Grand Prix award for the best choir of the festival. They then moved on to the World Choir Games in Riga, Latvia, where they won gold medals in the Youth Choir and Musica Sacra categories.

In 2015 the choir performed Handel’s Messiah for the first time, as part of the 350-year birthday celebrations of Cape Town’s Groote Kerk. A feature-length documentary film about the choir in rehearsal and performing, called Finding Messiah, was made by Hollywood producer David Morin. It is available for download from iTunes.

While in the United States in April, the choir will also give a performance  at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, and in Boston, amongst other venues.

Their concert tour is entitled Songs of Loss and Hope. “The concerts will explore those two aspects of life – both through existing choral repertoire as well as newly commissioned pieces for the tour by three young South Africans and a Zimbabwean,” says Starker. They are: Qulani! – You’ve got to be taught to hate and to fear, by Soweto composer Neo Muyanga, who also composed an opera on Nelson Mandela; On a Night, by Conrad Asman (SA) which is about the pursuit of love and beauty; Psalm 133, by  Simon Bethell (SA) and; What they did yesterday afternoon by Tanyaradzwa Tawengwa of Zimbabwe.

Starker says that although the choir will visit the States at a time when the mood there is sober, “Our beautiful young people will arrive with a good and inspiring story to tell, one in which love of our common humanity triumphs over narrow self-interest. I have no doubt we will convey this through our songs!”

Horizons, by South African Péter Louis van Dijk is about loss of dignity, but also about ubuntu and humanity. “The song tells the story of the arrival of European ships and settlers from a San (Bushman) perspective. It was originally commissioned by the British a cappella group, the King’s Singers.

A sure crowd-pleaser in the youth choir’s repertoire is Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s Homeless (Paul Simon).

Starker hopes the choir will instil hope in all those who hear them. “We will sing the songs and people will form their own stories from them. For me, I want the message to be that the world is not as bleak a place as some make it out to be. It is more about hope than hope lost. I don’t think we are in ‘Paradise Found’ but I don’t think we are in ‘Paradise Lost’ either,” says Starker.

The choir is currently raising funds to make this tour a reality for as many CTYC members as possible. Those who would like to help the choir get to Carnegie Hall can donate through the US crowdfunding site Indiegogo, (link: http://bit.ly/2lmFadl)

The choir is also registered with Fractured Atlas in the US, which means that donations originating from the US will be tax deductible for the donor.

South Africans are urged to encourage friends in New York, or those due to be visiting there in April, to support the choir by attending the Carnegie Hall performance, tickets for which are available through the Carnegie Hall website.

“Almost everybody either knows someone living in New York, or knows someone who knows someone who lives in New York. Please encourage, cajole, threaten, or even beg them to not only buy tickets for the concert, but to also forward this email to friends and family to get them to buy tickets. Help us to sing to a sold-out venue,” urges Starker.

On their return, the choir will perform their Carnegie Hall repertoire at two local concerts: one, on 22 April in the Hugo Lambrechts Auditorium in Parow, and on 23 April at Bishops Chapel, Diocesan College, in Rondebosch, Cape Town. 

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