OFF THE ROAD WITH TOUR CHOIR
September 19, 2011
Dear families and friends,
You have obviously figured out by now that we made it safely home from South Africa, as planned, on Mother’s Day…FOUR MONTHS AGO! I can’t believe how the time has flown, both the final four days of the tour and the months, performances, final rehearsals, Vail residency, auditions, more performances, vacations, and now the start of the 2011-12 season!! These past months have been incredibly busy, but I didn’t want you to miss out on our last few days in Cape Town. We finished the tour with a flurry of activity and excitement, and even more extraordinary concerts and unforgettable adventures.
As predicted at the end of my last missive (dated May 4!), we arrived in Cape Town to sunny skies and drove straight to Table Mountain. Similar to our table-top mountains, Table Mountain rises suddenly and importantly above Cape Town. At 3,562 ft. above sea level, where Cape Town sits, it really is quite imposing. With rapid changes in the weather, the mountain top is often covered by clouds, or a fluffy, white “tablecloth.” At other times it is too windy for the cable car ascent. We were feeling quite smug as we zipped up to the base and boarded our personal cable car – just the right size for our party of 44! The car rotates as you ascend, affording a spectacular view of rugged cliffs dotted with climbers, and the city and ocean below. The view from the top is stunning, looking out across the ocean and down on the “bowl” of the city. And, of course, it was the perfect spot for “On Top of the World!”
We checked in to the Mandela Rhodes Place Hotel, right downtown and across the street from our final performance venue. The hotel is HUGE and quite luxurious. It was a last minute change, as our originally-booked hotel closed for renovations. After turning down one substitute offering, Pieter determined this “would do.” There was a bit of a kafluffle getting checked in, with rooms spread all over the block-long, very tangled conglomeration of buildings, all connected by various elevators, bridges and hallways. Well, not all connected. You can get from Bldg. B to Bldg. K on the 3rd and 7th floor walkways, but not to Bldg. C, and you have to go to the 8th floor and then down the stairs to get to the restaurant, which you can see out the windows from the 6th floor, but you can’t get there, and K401 is right next to B302…but who knew that?? Elevator 1 takes you to T1001, but then you take Elevator 2 to get back to C706, which is right down the hall from K709, but you can’t get there from here. Okay, I may be exaggerating…but not much. We were rewarded at the end of our journey with not-your-typical-hotel rooms, but four-room, beautifully decorated APARTMENTS! Refer here to rules 3,244, 45, and 46: Do not go in the kitchen, jump on the couch or walk across the coffee table to get to the TV. Actually, rule number 3,246 is basically irrelevant these days, thanks to the invention of the remote control…DON’T FIGHT OVER THE REMOTE CONTROL!
Wednesday evening found us in the township of Gugulethu, about 15 miles outside of Cape Town. Again, as in Soweto, these townships established as the black people were forced to relocate from major urban areas, as well as accommodating migrant workers moving from rural regions. Gugulethu is not pretty, but an indescribable mix of tourist-driven commercialism and unspeakable poverty. We were hosted by the Fezeka High School Choir and, again, they blew us away with their commitment and energy. We enjoyed a joint dinner with their young members, and I marveled at the ease with which our young charges visited and interacted with their other-side-of-the-world colleagues. This was a tough crowd, but they mixed and chatted as though they had everything in common, because they do — first and foremost, a love of and commitment to making amazing music and performing at a level way beyond the majority of their peers at home. And beyond that, as we watched them chatter away, it was clear that kids-are-kids all over the world. They share the drama of life with their friends and parents; they laugh and giggle and are curious about worlds they don’t know; they flirt and roll their eyes with abandon; they shove and guffaw uncontrollably; they live.
The concert was another joyous celebration, from beginning to end, with a loud raucous crowd filled with high school students. Sometimes a bit overwhelming, sometimes difficult to hear, but always heartfelt and emotional. And an experience no one there will soon forget. Back at our hotel, we were treated to a late-night snack of hot chocolate and muffins. Another yummy ending to an adventure-filled day, and much-needed energy to find the way back to our rooms!
Thursday, May 5, was a school day. No “happy study time,” but a visit to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela, along with other antiapartheid leaders, was imprisoned for 27 years. Robben Island is a very visual and striking symbol of the oppressive apartheied regime, known around the world. About seven miles off the Victoria & Alfred (V&A) Waterfront in Cape Town, the maximum security prison, completely inaccessible by land, is now a must-see tourist destination. Following a short ferry ride, we boarded a bus for the island tour which was led by a former prisoner. Most interesting, and extremely moving, was the walk through the prison, with 40 isolation cells, each with a story penned by one of its inmates and often accompanied by photos. We wandered silently, trying to take it all in. The feeling of loneliness and desperation was evident, but always coupled with joy, pride and honor. Adults and kids alike were silent and respectful.
Nelson Mandela wrote, “Today, when I look at Robben Island, I see it as a celebration of the struggle and a symbol of the finest qualities of the human spirit, rather than as a monument to the brutal tyranny and oppression of apartheid.” This sentiment is clear everywhere you look on the island. In 1999 it was declared a World Heritage site, and much has been done to restore the island’s ecology to its pristine state. The northern part is a bird sanctuary, with rabbits, gazelles, penguins and 132 species of birds.
Back at the V&A Waterfront, we enjoyed lunch in our staff groups, everything from pizza to Thai noodles to shawarma! The waterfront houses a huge shopping and entertainment area, filled with modern stores as well as craft areas. With no time today to enjoy it, we made a mental note as to our strategy when we come back Saturday, and then hurried back to the hotel for naps and refreshing before our final concert of the tour.
Our final concert venue was just across the street from the hotel (very handy!), in the beautiful and historic St. George’s Cathedral. Much like Sagrada Familia in Brazil, though with no comparison in sheer size, St. George’s first opened for divine service in 1834, was designated a cathedral in 1847, and has been being built, rebuilt, and added on to, etc. ever since. You don’t notice this from the outside, but inside it is a tangled web of old and new, large and not-so-large spaces, with a beautiful courtyard in the center, completely obscured from the street. Through these almost-200 years, the church has been the scene of many a political drama, including month after month of being packed with protestors and opponents of the government to be addressed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and other speakers. But without fail, the weekly worship of the cathedral continued, along with choral evensong of the highest musical quality. And for good reason. With typical old-world cathedral acoustics, it is a rewarding and joyous endeavor to sing at St. George’s.
We are always challenged, particularly on international tours, with dressing room spaces. First of all, we come with half boys and half girls, requiring two dressing rooms. We did not take our formalwear on this tour, trying to minimize both the thousands of dollars (literally) in extra baggage fees and our dressing room requirements. But we do like to have a first act, more formal look, and then change into a more fun, casual second act look. We accomplished that on this tour with a series of “sedate” polos in act one, then changing into our brightly colored t-shirts for act two. Well, accomplished it in my mind anyway – I’m not sure audiences know the difference! Referring back to the last paragraph, you’ll see the mention of “not-so-large spaces” in St. George’s Cathedral. Imagine 36 Tour Choir members, ages 12-14, with backpacks, in your average laundry room, with flowers, candles, crosses, vases, etc. stacked from floor to ceiling on all walls. It was not pleasant. Fortunately, with our hotel across the street, we were able to arrive dressed for Act I. And for a moment we thought the best plan might be to return to our hotel rooms at intermission and change to Act II. If you will refer back to paragraph three of this letter, you will see why this was not possible. It was taking us easily 15+ minutes, from the doorway of the hotel, to get everyone in their rooms…and another 15+ to get them back out! So…rotating is us. Boys to the courtyard and the one toilet conveniently located in some obscure, hidden corner down another long hallway; girls single file down the narrow hallway to the anteroom, squish and change; girls return single file down the narrow hallway that is right next to the performance space where the other choir is performing, to the courtyard and the one toilet; boys single file down the narrow hallway to the anteroom, squish and change; boys return single file…you get the idea. Backpacks? They stay in the anteroom, pretty much taking up every inch of floor space. We finally all arrived back to the courtyard with a few minutes to calm ourselves by walking through the labyrinth before we returned to the stage, on the sanctuary steps of this glorious cathedral, to wow the audience with, among other things, “Colorado Song,” “Take me Out to the Ballgame,” and by special request from the conductor of our host choir, an encore of “Do Re Mi” – which I had purposely taken off the program when I realized the other choir was composed of high school and college age singers. They sang along with relish!
Speaking of the host choir, Pro Cantu Youth Choir’s mission states that it is “proud to provide an opportunity for young South Africans to sing in a choir of the highest international standards whilst delivering a moving musical experience to its audiences.” Sounds familiar, eh? They were indeed excellent, having won world-wide competitions, and again, a bit intimidating. “Youth” choir generally means high school and college age members, which we obviously are not. I must say however, I was never prouder of our young performers. From the Bernstein Mass to Copland folk songs to “The Song I Sing,” they sang with musical sophistication, precision, charm and beauty, proving that they belonged on this world stage. Following the concert, one of the PCYC parents approached me to ask if by any chance we had been in France in 2006. Turns out, he was in a choir from South Africa that we performed with at the AICLER Music Festival in the south of France. When I said, “Yes, that was us,” he beamed and replied, “I KNEW it! I still remember your performances and those amazing children!” Nice. We returned to the hotel, with huge chunks of chocolate cake and cold milk waiting for us in the lounge. The perfect bedtime snack!!
As I am sure you have faithfully kept every tour letter ever received, you may now refer to May 4, paragraph 2, where we excitedly announced our surprise invitation to appear on the morning show at SABC 3. We were up early, and appeared on schedule, with Aaron and Jayda expertly handling the interview questions. We sang “Blessing” for mothers around the world, and enjoyed the segment on manicures as we waited our turn! Back on the bus by 8:15am, we headed towards Cape Point to enjoy some more of the ocean, which we can never seem to get enough of. On the way, we took a boat trip to Seal Island getting close enough to snap some good photos of the seals sunning themselves and playing in the surf. And we managed the trip out and back with only one seasick sailor. Again, anyone who faithfully follows these letters knows that Thomas is not a fan of the ocean, though we were at least prepared this time, thanks to Ms. Smith. You will all be happy to know we managed to avert his plan to bring the full bag home with him as a souvenir, “losing” it at the first trash can.
From seals to penguins at the Penguin Colony, a short stroll along a raised walkway with hundreds of penguins, including several babies peeking out at us from the sand, rocks and brush. Very cute, indeed! Then on to the Cape Point Nature Reserve and lunch at Two Oceans Restaurant – the largest plate of fish and chips we’ve ever seen. The Nature Reserve and surrounding ocean view is stunningly beautiful. We enjoyed the many species of birds, who were more than eager to enjoy our lunch with us, all the while keeping a look-out for the baboons purported to be lurking in the bushes. They are evidently quite bold, with insatiable appetites for all things sweet. There are warning signs everywhere, cautioning you to keep all snacks sealed and out of site. Our bus driver told of watching tourists use the remote to unlock their car, and before they could get to the car, swarms of baboons, upon hearing the click of the remote, swarming the car and ransacking the interior.
We (and by that I mean “they”) rode the funicular to the top of the mountain for the spectacular view of the ocean, and then hiked (and by that I mean “raced”) back down. As I was sitting at the bottom waiting for their return, and watching for baboons, I was startled to see Zac fly out from the path. He was clearly the race winner, with Mr. Branam not far behind! We were rewarded with multiple baboon sightings as we left the reserve, as they literally caused us to stop, blocking the road, and exploring the outside of the bus. They looked pretty cute from our vantage point high above and behind closed windows and doors, but we understand they are really quite mean and destructive.
At the Cape of Good Hope, the most southwestern point of the African continent, we took time to stumble and frolic on the rocks, as well as snap the necessary photos to show that were actually there. The ocean waters look treacherous from this point, and tales of shipwrecks abound. In my opinion, the rocks on land looked treacherous enough, never mind the surrounding ocean!
Our farewell dinner was a fantastic cultural experience, as is always the case on an ACFEA tour. The Africa Café is committed to “creating food and an atmosphere celebrating Africa’s diversity and rich tapestry of tastes and aromas,” and they certainly live up to their hype. Walls, ceilings, any available space was covered with bright paint, hangings, pottery, musical instruments, and some of the most unique and intriguing lighting fixtures I’ve ever seen, most of it made out of something you might find in your trash! Exotically beautiful wait staff, dressed in colorful costumes and with tastefully-painted face make-up, were there to meet our every need. They sang, accompanied by a variety of drums, shakers and rattles. My favorite was the tambourine made of pop-bottle caps, with holes through the middle, strung on a wire hanger. It was a VERY effective noise maker! In between songs and serving, they painted any and all faces…and in Mr. Koriath’s case, the top of his head. The food was delicious – cassava bread, Mozambican piri piri sardines, Ethiopian springbok, sesame chicken kabobs, Congo salad with jungle dressing, Cape Malay dahl curry, green curry oysters, to name a few – and waaaay more than we could eat, partially because it was a lot of food, but also because we were just plain having too much fun to eat.
We were rockin’ the house…quite literally, it seems. On the way down the stairs, a vase tumbled from a shelf on the wall right on to Ky’s nose! We hustled back to the hotel for a very late lights out, and a midnight visit from the hotel on-call doctor for Ky. It was determined that she was fine, though quite sore and a bit bruised. To be on the safe side, we scheduled an x-ray for the next morning and I spent the night checking on her every two hours. Thankfully, she slept peacefully as I kept my vigil and the morning x-rays confirmed that she was indeed good to go. Whew!
Saturday, after packing, cleaning and bidding our lovely apartments farewell, we strolled down nearby Government Avenue, a leafy pedestrian-only road running the length of Company’s Garden, where Cape Town has its roots. We walked past the Houses of Parliament and National Gallery, and visited the South African Museum with its stunning San rock art, ethnographic displays of various early tribes, and extensive flora and fauna, all beautifully exhibited. Company’s Garden, first planted in 1652 in order to provide food for the Dutch East India Company, is now a small elegant park of flowerbeds and trees.
After a quick lunch and shopping back at the V&A Waterfront, we hit Greenmarket Square, right around the corner from our hotel. This square is the old heart of Cape Town, and the second oldest square in the city. It was a vegetable market in the 19th century, the 1834 site of the declaration of freedom for slaves, and now a busy flea market, with hundreds of stalls filled with local arts and crafts. As usual, we did our best to contribute to the local economy, attempting to spend every last bit of our rand and adding to our already-full treasure troves of jewelry, trinkets, and toys.
Airport, fond farewells to Pieter and Nando, dinner, movie, sleep, breakfast and…poof!…it’s Sunday morning and we’re back in London. Another day, another bus, and off we go. Jennifer, our guide du’jour, directed the bus past the not-to-be-missed London sights including Buckingham Palace, Harrods, and Royal Albert Hall, where just ten years ago this summer we were on stage for a BBC Proms concert performing Britten’s Spring Symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra. We ended up at the Tower of London where we checked out the Crown Jewels, the torture chambers, the Fit for a King exhibit taking us into the lives of the kings, their horses, and the armor they wore into battle, and of course, the famous ravens. We had the largest pizzas ever seen (and eaten!) at Pizza Express, topped off with an ice cream cone, then headed back to Heathrow Airport for the last leg of our journey, which was pleasantly uneventful, just the way we like it!
And now, four months later, we have said good-bye to our 2011 graduates – Maddie, Lydia, Evan, Rachel, Michael, Brian, Grady, Henry, Rebecca, Kaela, Jason, Hayden, Lyric, Zac, Sophia, Lizzie, Ky, Panteli, Sammi, Jay, Matti, Jalena, Alec and Annika. They are taking high schools (and a few middle schools, thanks to untimely L voice changes) all over the metro area by storm, involved in everything from soccer to AP science to jazz choir. We still see quite a few of them, as they are now oh-so-mature grads and/or in Transitions – and for that we are VERY grateful. It is way too painful to just say “good-bye,” so we don’t. Life does go on however, and Nik, Melissa, Kent, Jayda, Thomas, Andrea, Stephen, Brendan, Aaron, Revann, Madeline, and Tyler have 2011-12 National Tour Choir firmly in hand!
A beautiful and inspiring country, culture and people; beautiful and inspiring musical experiences; and 36 beautiful and inspiring young people to share it all with. It is always good to be home, but I think we all left a piece of our hearts in South Africa.