North West University ready to serenade you
30 November 2015
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Brad Brown: You’re listening to Old Mutual Live, great things start here, great things start now and we’re joined by another one of the conductors who will be leading his choir at the 2015 Old Mutual National Choir Festival in Mangaung, Ithumeleng Pooe, welcome.
Ithumeleng Pooe: Thanks, nice to be here.
BB: I got the name right!
BB: You’re no stranger to this competition, you’ve been around it, not just as a conductor, but you’ve sung on this stage many times.
BB: It must feel like home for you.
IP: Not really, you never get used to the feeling. People think it’s easy, people think it’s comfortable, but the truth of the matter is, every year you get a surprise. People want to win, people want to do well and we’re no different really.
BB: You’re from the North West, the choir is based in Potch at the university, tell us a little bit about it. It’s the North West University –
BB: Tell us about the choir.
The history of the NWU Serenaders
IP: Well, the choir was formed in 1994 by a group of students led by one of the most famous musicians now in South Africa, Michael Dingaan and obviously we came in a bit later. I started studying there in 2005 doing my diploma in music and naturally I joined the choir because that’s the first place you would go to. You associate with, having grown up in a musical, in a choir singing family, but also where I came from, I sang for two choirs.
So, I went there and we started thinking how can we make the choir better from where it was. Targeted a few students who were music students as well as singers, but also people who were just music students and then we were fortunate enough that some of the plans that we implemented paid off. In 2011 we were the National Champions in the standard category and then in 2012 we missed it again by just that much, but then we were promoted into the large category in 2013, that’s when I took over the choir as a conductor.
We did well for first timers there, we got position three and then last year we really didn’t do that well because we didn’t go to the finals and again, that was the year when the league system was introduced. So it was quite a surprise for us, it caught us with our pants down, so to speak. This year we were better prepared and we managed to luckily be among the top ten choirs that were selected.
BB: I find it interesting, you talk about what this competition does and the path it paves for musicians in this country. A lot of our top musicians in South Africa have performed here, it’s a great competition, it’s been around for a long time, what does the NCF personally mean to you?
This is a great platform for musicians
IP: You hit the nail on the head. I always say, it’s a great platform because it also gives us an opportunity to be played on national radio and to get that platform without really paying a cent, that’s something big. But it’s also interesting to see some of the talent grow and now things have changed. We even now see professional singers being hired or requested by choirs to come and perform with them at these competitions.
It really shows how the standard has really risen quite sharply. It’s the orchestras as well, the KZN Philharmonic, fantastic all the time, they offer us great support, we learn a lot from them. Now we are with the JMI who have been here before in any case, in previous years. So all round, it’s a great opportunity, even for us conductors because we never get an opportunity to work with an orchestra, to perform with an orchestra, it’s an expensive exercise.
But you know, like now, during this weekend, we get to the opportunity to sit there, talk to them, not just about the competition, but as musicians as well, like me for example. I’ve got a symphonic wind orchestra that I work with every week. Now to work with this orchestra, you see the similarities, but also the differences, but you learn more because you talk to them and say, what do you think about this, did I do this correctly, did you see this, what can I do. The conductor is fantastic now, very friendly, also very tough, but again, who said it was going to be easy? For some of us, maybe it’s a bit easier, but you definitely learn something new all the time.
BB: It’s almost a case of it rejuvenates the spirit, to come and experience something like this and then you take this back to Potch and then you can impart your passion and what you’ve learnt on the choir.
IP: Absolutely, the beauty about that choir in that space is that we are at a university where music is top. Yes, we might not be associated with the School of Music, but some of the students that are singing in the choir, are from the School of Music.
So it’s also nice to bring that energy, especially after now, because here you get an opportunity during this weekend to see what other conductors are doing and some of them, you can see, they mean business. Some of them are there to gauge the standards, so they’re holding back, so there’s a lot of things, other than music, that you can really take back home. All the same though, energy, positive attitude, that should be the message after this weekend.
BB: Are you here to just gauge or you’re here to mean business this weekend?
Been hard at work all along
IP: I’m here to work, that’s what I’m going to say. I’m here to work, luckily the people who are closer to me, that I’m talking with, musicians that are here that I talk with, we are very open with certain things. Just last night I spent some time with Sidwell Mhlogo, with Vumile Nomanyama, the conductor of SA Singers, Monty, the conductor of Kopana Chorus.
If you look at the order of performance, those people that I’ve mentioned, are in the bottom four or so, the last four or five choirs we are there and people perceive this as, this is where things are going to be interesting. Because these are the top dogs, so to speak, of choral music, but it was so interesting that we sat down and we were actually talking about our choirs, talking about the music, asking for advice from these guys.
Hence I’m saying to you, the energy from here on onwards, it has never changed anyway, but from here on, it should be to our choirs. We are going in for the kill. We’re not holding anything back, we’re going there, it’s there for the taking. These are the top ten choirs that have to go through months of waiting and suspense and we are here now, it doesn’t get better than this. Anyone can win it.
BB: The playing field is levelled here. What’s happened up to now counts for nothing. You’re here, you’re on the same stage, everyone has got exactly the same chance to win.
IP: Everyone is there to win it and I can tell you, from the first choir to the tenth choir, everyone has an equal chance of doing well in this competition and that should be the attitude. I emphasis the word ‘attitude’ because that also plays a lot, it’s about character when you get onto that stage. If you’re going to be holding back, I mean the orchestra, that’s how the orchestra also works, if you get there and you’re trying to, ag, let me hold back a bit, you don’t get support from them.
But if you give them energy, you receive as much as you give as well. Whatever I’m going to be receiving from here, I need to sit and say, oh, did I give my best? Yes, I think I did give my best, can I transfer this energy now to the choristers as well. Each and every choir that is on that list is there to win it, don’t underestimate anyone at this level.
BB: How excited are the choristers who are sitting back in Potch at the moment, to come to Mangaung.
Our choir is extremely excited
IP: Look for the fact that we were not there last year, we are looking forward even more to being here on the stage and performing with an orchestra and seeing other choirs as well. It’s amazing what happens in a year. You miss one year, you don’t go to the finals, it’s like everyone has forgotten about you. So it’s also an opportunity for us to remind the people who we are.
They’re very excited. Right now, as I’m sitting during rehearsals, they’re busy sending messages, what are you doing, what’s going on, who is on stage, how is the environment and of course, I must be careful of what I tell them. Also, I must be as honest as possible, but as I said, the energy that I’m sending to them is that guys, we are here, it’s no longer a question of three weeks’ time, we’re here, the competition started today actually.
BB: As far as you say all ten choirs have got a chance –
BB: 11, where is the biggest threat going to come from, are you prepared to say it or are you keeping those cards close to your chest?
IP: Our biggest threat, our biggest competition is ourselves because we know what we are capable of, we’ve been here before, although it was a different category. We know what we are capable of, we know the people that we have and we know how far they can push themselves. Our biggest competition is ourselves. Yes.
We listened to other choirs and there are choirs that we can say, definitely will improve, will up their game in terms of interpretation and how they’re going to present. There are certain choirs that will really battle, that we think we are sitting here and trying to think, where, how high can they go from where they were.
So it’s a question of preparing ourselves as best as we can, but also trying to also gauge what the others are doing. From now onwards, it’s about keeping the eye on the ball, fixing ourselves, making sure that we are psyched up for this thing, we are focally ready, musically we are just up there with the rest of the game. You don’t need to wait for the choirs to sing, you only need to look at the list of choirs, the names that are there, to really be at your best.
BB: Let’s talk about the running order, are you satisfied, are you happy with where you are performing?
Very happy with our seeding
IP: Let me shock you and tell you, those are the places that I wanted actually. My predictions were accurate and oh ja, I got one right as well for the standard category, so not bad! That’s where we wanted to be because we know, that’s where the heat will be, we want ourselves to be there in the kitchen and it doesn’t get better than what we’ve got.
We’re number seven there and immediately after us it’s the Gauteng gang and just in that order and you get SA Singers as well there on the first day. The second day we are a bit further down, number eight and again, Gauteng is behind us there. Before us, you get Voices of the Nation and you get the last two Gauteng choirs as well after us. So it doesn’t get better than that.
BB: It gives you an opportunity to really put the pressure on.
IP: Look, this is a business where you thrive on pressure. It’s either you choke or you press the buttons and try to put pressure on the next one, that’s all.
BB: Let’s talk about the music, the prescribed music. You were joking with me before we started recording that you missed out last year, it seems every year you come as a conductor you pick up opera, has that been challenging?
Adapting to the prescribed music
IP: Let me tell you the funny thing, I’m not a huge fan of opera myself, in terms of performance because I’m also classically trained as a singer, but that’s where we seem to be doing good. Even the year we became champions, we were singing Rossini, we were singing an opera extra, but I also saw that perhaps it’s because there’s more freedom to expose yourself emotionally, open up and give more, give, give, give.
That’s where we are at the moment, just opening ourselves to possibilities. Every day is an experiment, up until you think you’ve found something and then tomorrow you think otherwise because that’s our job as conductors, to keep things interesting, to keep things developing and developing. The music is challenging.
We chose Don Carlo, the scene that we chose is known as the Out or the Affair, in the music opera sector, which is a very big piece. People think it’s easy because this piece has been sung in a few other competitions before, but the greatest thing about singing a piece that somebody else has sung before, it gives you an opportunity to do something different.
Of course, you learn from what has been done, but you also find other ways. I think, personally, as a conductor, that’s what I experienced during the provincials. I go into spaces I would never go to because normally I’m a guy that plays it safe. I’m more about structure, more about clarity of things, but to be there with the performers and inspire them, it’s a zone I hadn’t really tapped much into and it was quite an experience for me.
We are just looking forward to the day and presenting on stage what we think will be good enough for us to be remembered, that’s what’s important. Music also is about memories. If we win, fantastic, if we don’t, at least let the people remember the performance that we’re giving.
BB: Ithumeleng Pooe, I think we’ll leave it at that. I love your passion and look forward to seeing you getting back into that zone.
BB: I’m sure everyone else is too, best of luck.
IP: Thank you very much and thank you for the moment as well, for the opportunity.