In South Africa, there is a lot of great singing happening, observed Cameron LaBarr, assistant professor of choral music at Lee University. He has just returned from his exciting trip to Pretoria, a South African city located north of Johannesburg. — “the hub of what is going on in choral music in South Africa.”
“There is a real yearning for knowledge in the South Africa culture, regardless of race of class,” he said. The Armonia Chamber Singers, he added, is emerging as one of the premier choruses in the region.
His invitation came through Gerrit Scheepers, whom he had met and got to know in Italy in the summer of 2012. LaBarr said the Armonia Chamber Singers conductor had a vision of what could happen in the singing culture. But, he added, there is opportunity for growth in higher skilled training experiences for conductors.
He said it was an honor to be invited as guest conductor and lecturer for the conducting masterclass, an all-day event. LaBarr said he gave a morning lecture on choral concepts, then worked one-on-one with conductors (along with the choir) for 20 to 30 minutes each, striving to make a better choral sound, more efficiently through gesture and rehearsal technique. He then conducted the chamber singers in a concert that evening. Additionally, LaBarr was in-residence, guest lecturing at the University of Pretoria, which boasts some 60,000 students.
LaBarr said one interesting thing about being in South Africa was “learning more about music of the South African culture and getting to know the international music that is being performed there as well.” He explained that choral music from Finland is popular, along with Asian, American, and Swedish, among others.
He makes a practice of staying with families on his trips abroad so he can be closer to the people and learn more about their lives, which was certainly possible on this trip. These intimate cultural exchanges, he said, unlock possibilities for the future. LaBarr has brought back some South African music from the Xhosa tribe and will be performing it in concert with the Lee University Choral Union on their Oct. 24 program in the chapel at Lee.
LaBarr said he was especially impressed with the University of Pretoria Youth Choir of 60 or 70 students with diverse backgrounds from 27 high schools. “They were so full of life — a joy to work with,” he said. Their folksong-like repertoire was “brought into the choir from the various backgrounds of the individual students" and was taught through the aural tradition. "Nothing else like it,” he added. “It’s a social outlet, as the students look forward to getting together on Friday nights.”
He said there was such openness to artistry in South Africa — honest and sincere. People, he said, didn’t want to leave the concert. “Singing changes things,” LaBarr said. “(It) bridges culture and social life and truly elevates the human experience.” And, he added, “people who sing in choirs tend to be more involved in community”
In South Africa, he was able to attend various festival choral groups, such as the major Kuesta Festival which includes five top university choirs from the University of Johannesburg, and the universities of Nelson Mandella, Stellenbosch, Northwest and Pretoria. He also experienced a high school choral festival with 20 schools coming to sing at Johannesburg, including the school established by Opry Winfrey.
In his lectures on choral music and artistry, LaBarr said he found the students were inquisitive and eager to earn new ideas. His lectures were on topics: Striving for Artistry Through Repertoire and Programming; Choral Concepts; and Modern Choral Music of the United States.
Since one of the singers was an American deputy political counselor at the U.S. Embassy, he had the opportunity to meet with Kate Pongonis and E.J. Monster, cultural affairs officer, at the U.S. Embassy in South Africa to discuss future collaborations in exploring American culture in the South African context. “It was exciting to be at the U.S. Embassy,” LaBarr said, “and the security was certainly tight.” He was able, also, to visit Krugar National Park to view animals in the wild.
South Africa has 11 official languages, although English is most used and understood. The University of Pretoria is tri-lingual, with all official documents in Afrikaans, Pedi, and English.
LaBarr is originally from Richmond, Mo. He and his wife Susan lived in Texas before coming to Cleveland three years ago to assume a position at Lee University School of Music as assistant professor of choral music. He also serves as artistic director and conductor of Tennessee Chamber Chorus.
He said he likes it here and especially enjoys working with the Tennessee Chamber Chorus, the state’s only paid professional chorus. The new arts organization is based in Cleveland and consists of singers from across the United States, including New York, Missouri, Idaho, Washington (state), Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina.
Although LaBarr’s wife was not free to go with him to South Africa on this trip, a new composition by her was commissioned by the Armonia Chamber Singers conductor. Mrs. LaBarr is a well-known gifted composer and was chosen in 2012 as the Missouri Composer Laureate by the Missouri Verses and Voices Organization. She is a recipient of the Missouri Choral Director’s Association Opus Award, also, and was recently composer-in-residence for the Chattanooga Girls Choir. She works (from home) for a Dallas, Texas, company as choral editor, permissions and licensing administrator, and serves as content editor of The Chorister, a bi-monthly journal for youth choir directors.
Scheepers, LaBarr’s host at the University of Pretoria, said he thought the cultural exchange between the countries were an important aspect. He said he tried to expose him (LaBarr) to as big as possible variety of different South African choirs, just to give him a feel of how big the choral scene is in South Africa. Scheepers said LaBarr took the time to teach one of Pretoria's newest choirs an early American folk tune “Saints Bound to Heaven.” The choir performed it under his direction at the concert in the University of Pretoria Chapel and “surely was a special moment for the audience and the singers.”
Scheepers said their relationship started back in August 2012 in Sarteano, Italy, where LaBarr and he attended master classes together. The idea of his coming to South Africa began in February this year when the decision was made to bring LaBarr over to present master classes in choral conducting and give a lecture on conducting to music students of the University of Pretoria and to work with his choir, the Armonia Chamber Singers. “I think both he and I were a bit skeptical of what to expect and if the whole idea is going to be a success,” Scheepers said. “Needless to say it was a huge success. I personally feel that the choral music scene in South Africa, specifically Pretoria, got a fresh breeze,” he added. “The feedback from the students and all the choirs he visited are very positive and we hope to have him back in South Africa as soon as possible.”
Willem Potgieter of the Armonia Choir said LaBarr was extremely well accepted in Pretoria. “He has left a legacy that people are still talking about three weeks after his departure. He really made a good impression and was a great ambassador for America.”
He said the response from the choristers in all the choirs he worked with was overwhelming. “He really brought a new outlook and approach to a very proud choir community.” In Pretoria, he said, “we see our choir community as alive and well. We have great conductors and up-and-coming conductors.”
Potgieter said LaBarr brought a fresh perspective to how they view rehearsals, performances, repertoire choice, and the training of conductors at university level. “When I speak to people about Cameron and his visit,” he continued, “the most common response I get is that the people absolutely loved the energy he brings to rehearsals and that his expertise is on a level that a lot of people have not yet experienced.”
Since Armonia only came into existence last year, they have many inexperienced singers — “great voices,” Potgieter said, “but many people are singing choir for the first time.” He said LaBarr really brought out the best in everyone in Armonia and people were amazed at what they themselves were capable of under his hands. “He really pushes to get what he wants, while at the same time being considerate and sincere,” he added. “He maintains a high level of energy during the entire rehearsal and the choir certainly feeds off that energy.”
Potgieter said singing under his direction for him, personally, was a life-changing experience. He said he had sung in choirs for the last nine years and worked with many amazing conductors, but “I learned so much from Cameron.” “His loyalty to the music is inspiring,” Potgieter said, “and certainly changed my outlook on how a choir should strive towards perfection, while never loosing sight of the meaning of the music and the intention of the text, notes and composer.”
All in all, Potgieter concluded, LaBarr's visit was a major success and they are already thinking towards his next visit.