“The sight filled the northern sky; the immensity of it was scarcely conceivable. As if from Heaven itself, great curtains of delicate light hung and trembled. Pale green and rose-pink, and as transparent as the most fragile fabric, and at the bottom edge a profound fiery crimson like the fires of Hell, they swung and shimmered loosely with more grace than the most skilful dancer.”

This is the first vivid description of the Northern Lights in Philip Pullman’s novel of the same name, in which young Lyra journeys to the Arctic in search of her missing friend and imprisoned uncle. On Friday 1 and Saturday 2 September 2017, supporters of choral music were promised an experience no less intrepid as they embarked on a unique musical voyage of light and sound.

VOX Cape Town’s performance showcased a smorgasbord of contemporary composers from the Baltic region. The unique soundscape offered by this music, rarely heard in Cape Town, represented no fewer than seven different nations – Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Latvia, Norway, Poland and Russia. Guests were invited to don their snow boots and arrive early to enjoy steaming glühwein and a crashing wavescape in St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church which had been decked out to evoke a sailing ship.

The night’s choral voyage began, appropriately, with the first of the six “Songs of Farewell” by Sir Hubert Parry – “My soul, there is a country far beyond the stars”. The full-blooded opening of Henryk Górecki’s “Totus Tuus” (“Totally Thine”) heralded the arrival on Baltic territory. This piece, a musical affirmation of faith, was written in 1987 to celebrate Saint John Paul II’s third pilgrimage to his native Poland. The sense of arrival was carried through in “The Ground” by Norwegian Ola Gjeilo, a work which the composer intended to reflect “peace and grounded strength”.

The next stop was Latvia for music by Ēriks Ešenvalds (b. 1977): “Only in Sleep”, in which the poet nostalgically remembers her childhood friends, and the gentle prayer “O Salutaris Hostia”, comprising fragments of melodies drifting across the ladies’ hushed chorale. Both works featured soprano soloists Stephanie Pulker and Jenni van Doesburgh.

The centrepiece of the programme was a reflective triptych of pieces by the holy minimalist Arvo Pärt (b. 1935, Estonia) who has written, “I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played.” This was reflected in the duet “Spiegel im Spiegel”, meditative and serene in its simplicity, played by distinguished local performers Matthew Golesworthy (piano) and Ariella Caira (cello). The other two works were “De Profundis”, a setting of Psalm 130 and a text of profound distress in which the voices themselves seem to climb out of the very depths of despair, and “The Deer’s Cry”.

The minimalism of Arvo Pärt was starkly contrasted with “Pseudo-Yoik”, a nonsense piece intended to mimic the native Lapland style of music by Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi. This was followed by a setting of “Pater Noster” (The Lord’s Prayer) by Stravinsky, one of very few pieces he wrote for unaccompanied voices, and “Heyr himna smiður”, an ancient Icelandic hymn that recently went viral on YouTube. The words of this hymn were written over 800 years ago as a prayer for peace, strength and protection.

VOX’s musical journey ended with two contrasting pieces entitled “Northern Lights”. The first was a personal response by Ola Gjeilo to this natural phenomenon: “It has such a powerful, electric quality that must have been both mesmerising and terrifying to people in the past, when no one knew what it was and when much superstition was attached to these experiences.” The finale setting by Eriks Ešenvalds was based on three separate texts – a Latvian folk song and an account of the aurora by two polar explorers, Charles Francis Hall and Fridtjof Nansen. Tenor soloist Peter Borchers led the singers through this work which employed tuned wine glasses and chimes to give the music an ethereal, otherworldly quality. As vistas of the aurora swept across the walls and ceiling, a suspended silence concluded VOX Cape Town’s journey to the North.

This concert was the third part of a series of “New Soundscapes” in which VOX intends to expose audiences to fresh choral sounds. To acknowledge the important relationship between VOX Cape Town and St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, part of the proceeds from this performance were donated to St Andrew’s. 

We are grateful to Alun Marchant for capturing special moments in the photo gallery and to Nicholas van Doesburgh for driving the technical aspects of the performances. We are also grateful to Ian Burgess-Simpson for sponsoring the piano for these performances and to Cape Lasers for providing the equipment to enable us to project the aurora.

What our supporters had to say…

“A splendid performance from VOX! Their soundscapes drew me right into the Baltic journey. Congratulations to all of you! It was a memorable experience.”

“Oh my! What a concert! Beautifully hypnotic musical sounds. A real delight.”

“Just wanted to say how incredibly beautiful the concert was last night. The singing was out of this world sublime. The stage set was very atmospheric, original and minimal. I particularly liked how understated the lighting on the singers was. It is most unusual not to have the soloists spot-lit but it brought the focus right into the heart of the music they were creating. All round it was a brilliant, unforgettable experience.”

“I went to this choral performance last night and it was absolutely incredible. I am pretty ignorant of choral music in general, but now I aim to remedy that. The show was intensely moving, sonically lush and beautiful, and accompanied by wonderful atmospheric visuals and sparse but glorious instrumentation. It’s only on again tonight, but well worth it if you can make it…”

“Last night was a delightful, inspirational blessing, sailing along with you, on the winds of song, to the Northern Lights and leaving me rejoicing in the hope of similar future experiences.”

“It was an exceptional evening of music… I cannot tell you how enchanted we were! Your choir is magical and John Woodland brilliantly took you all into extraordinary places with the music. Such fascinating choices! I feel that VOX is making an indelible mark in Cape Town and probably soon way beyond our borders!”

Did you join us on this choral journey? We’d be interested to know what you thought! Did you enjoy the glühwein and the atmosphere beforehand? What did you think of the projections, the presentation of the music and the singing? Are there ways in which we can enhance your experience next time? Let us know how we can continue to refine our unique presentations and push the boundaries by dropping us a line at [email protected]. We’d love to hear from you.