From chorister to choral conductor -  John Woodland and VOX Cape Town

From chorister to choral conductor -  John Woodland and VOX Cape Town

05.04.2017  On Friday 21 April at 8pm, VOX Cape Town under the direction of John Woodland will present Trust The Silences (Once More) in the Memorial Chapel at Bishops College in Rondebosch. spoke to Woodland about his journey from young choral singer to choral conductor and his vision for VOX Cape Town.

Where and when did you first encounter the world of choral singing as a chorister?
My first real encounter with choral singing was in my first year of high school at Bishops Diocesan College. All Grade 8s were obliged to undergo a voice test and, to my surprise, I made it into the Chapel Choir. Nervous for our first rehearsal, in which I vividly remember learning “To Thee, O Lord” by Rachmaninoff, I was struck by the way in which individual musical lines, beautiful in themselves, wove together to form complex harmonies that sounded quite different. I developed a strong interest in choral music that also catalysed a fascination with the organ, that would become my major instrument.

Today you are the conductor of VOX Cape Town, the latest addition to the list of top choirs in the Western Cape. From those Bishops schooldays, did you imagine or dream of this outcome?
Bishops has a rich musical tradition and I was fortunate to be exposed to many opportunities for choral music-making ranging from choral masses and evensongs to large-scale orchestral works such as “Carmina Burana”. By the end of high school I was addicted and so joining the UCT Choir in my first year at university was a no-brainer. The rest, as they say, is history!

Would you say that Mark Mitchell, Director of Music at Bishops, was the biggest influence on your approach and ideals in terms of choral singing and conducting so far?
Certainly. Mark was an enormous influence with respect to general music-making and choral performance. He takes credit for entrenching within me an appreciation for musical phrasing – the “sentences” in music – and the interplay between tension and relaxation. I took organ lessons with Mark and he always suggested, when figuring out the best way to shape a musical phrase on the organ, that I sing it first. This made me aware of the expressive capacity of the voice. Mark is part of an excellent, vibrant music department at Bishops and another big influence was (is) my piano teacher, Debby van Zyl. Since my schooldays, I have been privileged to witness much excellent choral singing and conducting from all over the world (thanks to YouTube!) and feel that I am developing my own hybrid style which I hope is successful.

You have been a member, as well as the conductor of the University of Cape Town Choir. How did this experience impact on your way of working with mostly untrained voices between the ages of 18-25?
Had I realised beforehand how challenging it would be, I might have run for the hills! But I was fortunate to work with fantastic students who would later become close friends, and it was a wonderful opportunity to continue the legacy of hard work that Margie Barlow had put into the UCT Choir for many years. Remember that the choir only sings together for about six months of the year (excluding exam and vacation times) and there is a large turnover in the group’s members every year. Nevertheless, over those three years from 2010-2012, we firmly entrenched the UCT Choir in the musical life of the university – from singing the national anthem at rugby matches to performing for Sir David Attenborough (on a very special occasion) or at conferences and exhibitions hosted by the university. I am particularly proud of the three CDs we produced, our outreach initiatives at that time, and winning the accolade of “Best University Choir” in the ATKV-Animato Koorkompetisie in 2012.

You have also been a member of the St George’s Singers under the direction of Dr Barry Smith? What was it like to sing under his guidance?
Barry has been an immensely important part of my musical life, right from the very beginning when I would attend organ recitals in St George’s Cathedral or sit spellbound (as I still do!) in his annual lecture series at the UCT Summer School. Needless to say, it was a privilege to sing under Barry and my only regret is that I was not able to spend more time in the St George’s Singers before his retirement. Barry has always been passionate about creating opportunities for young people in music and he gave me many opportunities to work with the St George’s Singers. He possesses a wealth of musical knowledge and he has a sensitive, gentle approach to music, extending beyond the notes on the page, that I greatly admire.

It is understood that the creation of VOX Cape Town was as a direct result of the disbandment of the St George’s Singers after Barry Smith’s retirement. Which part of their legacy are you hoping to continue?
Barry often asked (generously) whether I would consider taking over the reigns of the St George’s Singers after their final performance of “St Matthew Passion” in April 2015. A core group of former singers, who enthusiastically wished to continue singing, got together and we decided that we should rather start a new, distinct group with its own musical vision. Importantly, as you mentioned, we would continue the choral legacy of the St George’s Singers. Hence, VOX was formed in July 2015. We aspire to be a top-class chamber choral group specialising in a cappella works, but we would also like to continue performing the oratorios and cantatas for which the St George’s Singers were noted. For example, we are performing with Camerata Tinta Barocca later this year at the inaugural Cape Town Baroque Festival. We are also continuing a special relationship with St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Cape Town by hosting performances there and participating in their annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, which last year was recorded and broadcast on Fine Music Radio. Importantly, we want to take a novel approach to choral music by doing things that the plethora of other, excellent choirs in Cape Town don’t do. Despite these new ambitions, we are thrilled that Barry has agreed to be VOX’s patron and we hope to involve him more in the group in future.

How did you decide on the naming of VOX Cape Town?
It took us almost a year to decide on our name but “VOX” was a recurring suggestion. As you probably know it is the Latin word for “voice” and immediately tells you what we are all about – and, of course, that we are based in Cape Town. We wanted something simple yet uniquely identifiable and descriptive and this name elicited a good response from our singers – an important point for us.

In your publicity material you state that VOX Cape Town intends to invigorate local choral music. Please tell us more?
Most choral performances these days tend to feature a single, large choral work or comprise a “variety show” in which various styles are juxtaposed, typically in chronological order of composition. We want to do things differently; hence, VOX aims to perform music that is not often heard in Cape Town and that is grouped under a theme or narrative unique to each performance. Thus we initiated our “New Soundscapes” series as a way to introduce Cape Town’s audiences to fresh choral sounds in the form of one-hour, immersive performances.

We want to pair unusual styles, ideas and sounds in ways that are unconventional and might even be challenging for audiences. Overseas there are many exciting things happening on the choral music scene; new composers and new sounds are blurring the boundaries between classical and contemporary music. But we mustn’t forget about our own local culture and heritage as there is a great deal of wonderful South African music for us to promote. We also want to create new music and so VOX is in the process of commissioning a number of local composers to produce new music to expand the South African canon.

VOX also enjoys unusual approaches to performances. For example, we have sung a concert “in the dark” at the Youngblood Gallery in Bree Street as well as performed under the stars at the “Festival of White Lights” at Spier Wine Estate. Exciting news is that we have been approached by a record label to record and promote our music overseas, and we hope that this will continue to put Cape Town choral music on the global map.

Please define what the ideal choral sound would be for you.
I admire the sound of small choral groups such as The Sixteen and Polyphony. No surprise, then, Harry Christophers and Stephen Layton – the respective directors of those groups – are my choral heroes. My ideal choral sound – if I can’t play it for you now – is best described by a string of adjectives: fresh, vibrant, precise, clear, energetic, committed, expressive. The full face (eyes!) and, most importantly, the soul should be engaged – only then can we can communicate our music actively with our audiences.

The one-hour concert, Trust The Silences (Once More), on Friday 21 April, is the first in your ‘New Soundscapes’ series this year. What can the audience expect?
The “New Soundscapes” series began last year with “A Tale of Two Tave(r)ners” that juxtaposed Renaissance polyphony and contemporary minimalism. In this month’s performance, we are presenting the expressive music of Eric Whitacre (USA) and Ēriks Ešenvalds (Latvia) alongside two contemporary bands, Radiohead and the Cinematic Orchestra. This music will be enhanced by evocative lighting and illustrative projections to create a unique, immersive musical journey. We will also be re-arranging the seating in the Bishops Memorial Chapel to encircle the performers, enhancing the intimacy of the performance even though it takes place in a large space. One of our guests from last year described “Trust the Silences” as “a powerful all-embracing aural, visual canvas”. Importantly, we want our audience to feel something when they come to a performance and to be transported to another world – even if it is just for an hour. I am fortunate to be assisted by a fantastic Creative Team – Kyle Paulssen, James Rink and Michael Marchant – who coordinate all the logistics, artwork and marketing – allowing me to focus almost exclusively on my singers and the music itself.

The concert takes place in the Memorial Chapel at Bishops College. Is there a special significance to the event?
The Memorial Chapel is a place of sentimental significance for me, having spent many hours playing the organ there and having been involved in special performances such as “St Matthew Passion”. It is a fantastic acoustic space in which the choral sounds shimmer and hang in the air, and indeed allows one to “trust the silences”. The vast walls allow us to play with a full lighting colour palette and projections. There is a project underway to replace the lighting in the chapel to make it more suitable for performances. Proceeds from this performance will dedicated to this lighting project and to the maintenance of the Memorial Chapel.

Apart from your involvement in building and fostering choral singing traditions, you actually hold a PhD in Chemistry from the University of Cape Town where you are a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology. How do you manage to combine the two?
I am very fortunate to be able to indulge my two passions which, on the surface, might appear so different. My motto is “science by day, VOX by night” – but, without a doubt, the two disciplines complement one another. I love learning and understanding the natural world, and this is chiefly why I am interested in chemistry which is described as the “central science”. I am particularly interested in infectious disease and I hope, in this way, to make a positive, lasting impact on society. My PhD research developed new tools to assist in the rational design of novel antimalarials, while my current work looks at the impact of hormonal contraceptives on HIV acquisition and the molecular mechanisms underpinning this.

Lastly, where can members of the public get hold of tickets for Trust The Silences (Once More) on Friday 21 April at 8 pm?
We are encouraged that tickets seem to selling quite fast so, to guarantee a spot at the performance, email us directly at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Tickets are R160 or R120 for students and seniors. Kindly note that seats are unreserved and tickets are payable at the door. We do hope that you will join us for a glass of wine afterwards! You can also follow VOX on social media for more updates ( Finally, if choral music lovers have any ideas for ways in which we can invigorate local choral music, or suggestions for themed concerts under our “New Soundscapes” banner, do get in touch.

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