Minn., South African choirs merge traditions -- and languages -- in Johannesburg

Buyi Masikane of Gauteng Choristers, Debbie Richman of the Minn. Chorale
Singers Buyi Masikane, left, of the Gauteng Choristers and Debbie Richman of the Minnesota Chorale say that, despite challenges from unfamiliar songs, languages and pronunciations, they have each found the other supportive and have learned a lot.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

Two famed choral traditions met in a school auditorium in Johannesburg Monday night, as the Minnesota Chorale and the Gauteng Choristers prepare for what is likely to be a historic concert in Soweto on Friday.

Minnesota Chorale artistic director Kathy Saltzman Romey called the group to order and set about arranging the singers: Everyone sat in their vocal sections — sopranos, altos, tenors and basses — but Chorale members alternated with Choristers.

That wasn't just a question of mixing seats, Gauteng Choristers conductor Sidwell Mhlungo said.

"The textures of the voices are different, so that's the first thing that we need to work on," he said, "to get a proper blend of the choirs, so you have a homogeneous sound coming through."

Minnesota Orchestra in South Africa: Choristers and Chorale
Members of the Gauteng Choristers and the Minnesota Chorale quickly found ways of helping each other sing challenging material from each other's tradition.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

The Gauteng Choristers are internationally acclaimed, and one of three South African choirs to perform at the funeral of President Nelson Mandela in 2013. The Minnesota Chorale will join the Minnesota Orchestra Friday as its first-of-its-kind tour of South Africa culminates in a concert at Regina Mundi, a Soweto church that played a significant role in the country's struggle during — and after — apartheid.

South Africa is a country with 11 official languages, and the combined choirs tackled several of them, together, Monday. Mhlungo led the group through "Ruri," a creation song written in Sesotho by South African composer Michael Mosoeu Moerane.

He also took them through the next song, "Bawo Thixo Somandla" by Archibald Arnold Mxolisi Matyila, which became a popular protest song against apartheid in the 1980s.

The added challenge, this time, was that it comes with movement. It also involves the characteristic clicking used in Xhosha, one of the country's official languages. With the help of their new South African singing partners, the Minnesota Chorale members became dancers.

The combined bass section of the Minn. Chorale and the Gauteng Choristers.
The newly combined bass section of the Minnesota Chorale and the Gauteng Choristers work on their dance moves while rehearsing for Friday's concert in Johannesburg.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

The challenge turned around with the next piece, Beethoven's "Ode to Joy."

The Chorale's Romey carried them through it. "I think the power of the Gauteng Choristers is AMAZING!" she said. "And just the richness of the sound! So beautiful."

Chorister Buyi Masikane said singing in German was a challenge, particularly because she didn't understand the nuances of the words. Sitting next to her, Chorale member Debbie Richman laughed — she faced the same problem, too, she said — with Beethoven and with songs in Xhosa.

But with the choirs embedded together, standing side by side, she said, they're learning quickly from each other.

Minnesota Orchestra in South Africa: Choristers and Chorale
Members of the Gauteng Choristers and the Minnesota Chorale took selfies during their rehearsal in Johannesburg Monday.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

"You know, I was listening to her, because I would then hear how she said [things], and it's like, 'That's not right' and I would fix [what I was singing]. And that is really helpful in real time," Richman said.

The choirs have two more days of rehearsals, including one with the full Minnesota Orchestra under the baton of Osmo Vanska. Masikane said she can't wait for their performance, which will be broadcast Friday on Classical MPR in Minnesota at 7 p.m. Central time.

"It's going to be lit!" she said. "That's how we say it in South Africa: It's going to be lit!"

But before that, it's back to Beethoven.

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