Choral conductor Johan de Villiers - “Music is an inseparable part of my DNA’’

Choral conductor Johan de Villiers - “Music is an inseparable part of my DNA’’

The motto of the Libertas Choir is “Freedom in Harmony’’. The choir’s conductor, Johan de Villiers,  [Professor in Mathematics at the University of Stellenbosch (US)], founded this multi-racial choir in 1989. He has been the conductor for the past 25 years and has made it his mission, with his wife, Louwina, who is full-time manager of the choir, to promote harmony among all South-Africans through the shared joys of choral music. And is there a more significant way to spread peace, love, gratitude and hope than music? Marguerite van Wyk, a member of the choir since 2005, spoke to the accomplished conductor.

As a youngster in Bloemfontein you were surrounded by musicians – your dad, Dirkie [a composer and former Head of Music in the Free State Education department] and your grandad [M.L. de Villiers, composer of Die Stem van Suid-Afrika]. What are your earliest memories of music that touched you?

JDV:  I remember sitting on my dad’s lap. He would play classical music on the type of gramophones that were well known in the fifties and tell me about the composers whose music we were listening to. I shall never forget ‘My heart ever faithful’ (from Bach Cantata 68). He played me the music of Stravinsky’s ballet Petrouschka, telling me the tragic tale of the doll and the evil Moor. Petrouschka was my first proper record, given to me by my dad. My grandad sometimes asked me to play an easy scale on the piano. He would stand behind me and start to play all sorts of variations, with his hands over mine, depicting for example a skipping goat, or heavy-bodied elephant . . .

What was it like singing in the US choir under the legendary Philip McLachlan?

JDV:  In 1966-’67 I was a member of Die Kraaie [a male voice choir ] of Wilgenhof [residence for males] at Stellenbosch. [Johan studied mathematics, applied mathematics and physics at the US and obtained his PhD in mathematics from Cambridge University in 1974]. At the end of 1967 I became the conductor of Die Kraaie. I thought it would be good for me to sing under a master like Philip McLachlan. I sang from 1968-1969. It was one of the highlights of my university years. After recitals I always had the feeling that he inspired us to do even better than we had thought were possible. He was human, inspiring, warm, extremely musical and had impeccable taste in music.

Could you please tell us a little more about your choral studies overseas?

JDV:  When the rector of the US, prof Jannie de Villiers, offered me the conductorship of the US choir in August 1976 [I was supposed to start directing in 1977], the US offered to sponsor my choral studies from October to December at the Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. I was allowed to attend rehearsals of the Chicago Symphony Chorus and learnt a lot in a short while. I also bought a lot of choral sheet music. In 1980, after four and a half years as conductor, I attended the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts in the USA for a semester. During this time I went to the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin, where I was inspired by the legendary choir conductor Robert Fountain whilst attending rehearsals and recitals. He and I had several stimulating conversations.

What went through your mind when you heard you were going to be the full-time conductor of the US choir?

JDV:  I was totally surprised. But I have always embraced new challenges. Louwina encouraged me and I accepted immediately. It was eight wonderful years with great highlights such as the annual concerts tours throughout South Africa during June/July. We were fortunate to have two concert tours abroad. Through the choir I wanted to honour the music. And it was important that choir members as well as the audience enjoyed our recitals. The US choir became a part of our family and we made wonderful friends. We shall always treasure those years.

Why did you and Louwina feel so passionate about establishing the Libertas Choir in 1989?

JDV: We were both deeply concerned about the social injustices that existed in South Africa during the previous political regime. We thought that the variety of languages and cultural diversity of the members in our choir could help to create harmony through a shared choral experience. In conjunction with the enthusiastic assistance of Women for South Africa, I held auditions and the choir had its first rehearsal on 13 April 1989. Shortly after that we decided on the name Libertas Choir.

There must have been so many highlights these past 25 years. Could you name a few, please?
• The emotional impact on audiences before South Africa became a democracy was wonderful. The audience at the State Theatre in Pretoria rose like one man when we sang Nkosi Sikelel’iAfrica as an encore in 1990.
• It is so rewarding when choir members perform major works [with orchestra and soloists] such as the Mozart, Verdi and Brahms Requiems, the Messiah oratorio by Händel, the Bach Mass in B Minor, and the Elijah oratorio by Mendelssohn.
• Recital at a World Wild Life Function for Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, in 1995.
• October 1996 when the US awarded pres. Nelson Mandela an honorary doctorate. The Libertas Choir sang Bawo Thixo Somandla and Madiba joined the choir in dancing.
• The six overseas concert tours: 1996 Europe, 1998 Flanders, 1999 USA, 2001 Germany, 2004 the Netherlands and Germany, 2012, Germany. The audience response was genuine and heartwarming.
• Recital at the World Economic Forum, Davos, Switzerland, February, 1996
• Recital in the Reichstag, German Parliament, Berlin (November 2004)— and live broadcast on German TV.
• Première of Missa da Boa Esperanza - Mass in our eleven languages by the composer Lungile Jacobs Ka-Nyamezele in the Dom Church, Utrecht, the Netherlands, 2004.
• Recital for Queen Beatrix in De Doelen-auditorium, Rotterdam, the Netherlands, 2004.
• Private recitals for the German Bundespresident and his guests in his official residence, Schloss Bellevue, Berlin (2001 en 2012)

Why do you love conducting?

JVD:  Music is an inseparable part of my DNA. When music is ‘happening’, it feels as if every cell in my body is vibrating.

A great deal of the choir’s success, is the wonderful relationship between you and Louwina. How does she support you?

JDV:  My 33 years of intense involvement in choir conducting would not have been possible without her. As manager of the Libertas Choir, she has all the right qualities: she is compassionate, a great organiser and intelligent planner to ensure that the choir’s future is safe. She understands the heartbeat and rhythm of the choir and knows how to keep it healthy and on track. Louwina has always been my inspiration and strength and I have been able to count on her unconditional love and support.

You have huge plans to celebrate the choir’s 25th birthday all year long. Are you excited about it?

JDV:  Yes, we have to make 2014 special ! We kick off with Karl Jenkins’s Stabat Mater at the Oude Libertas Amphitheatre (7 & 8 March). We are also going to perform the Stabat Mater at the Klein Karoo Classical Music Festival in August. At the KKNK we shall sing the Missa Criolla and Navidad Nuestra with Amanda Strydom(29 March), followed by our own recital ( 30 March). And we are going to perform the musical THE CHOIR/DIE KOOR: The Libertas Story, in conjunction with the award-winning director [and performer] Basil Appollis and Camillo Lombard, pianist, composer and arranger, at the Oude Libertas Amphitheatre in November. Mouthwatering stuff!

At the beginning of 2013 you wanted the Libertas Choir to raise their standard a few notches? How did you do it?

JDV:  Yes, I strongly believe in a healthy choir discipline. [Choir members should strive always to be on time, be quiet during rehearsals, bring a pencil to mark their sheet music during rehearsals and have a very good excuse when they miss rehearsals!] I furthermore asked the professional mezzo soprano Minette du Toit-Pearce [she is also a singing teacher at the US conservatory] to assist in teaching choir members singing technique. We had wonderful results.

What would you like to tackle with your choir in the future?

JDV:  The St Matthew Passion of Bach as well as further performances of the above mentioned oratoria. [Händel, Mozart, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Verdi.]. I would also like to experiment with DNA music. Every living organism has a unique DNA sequence. If you use a particular algorithm to superimpose these sequences on the note scales, hauntingly beautiful music emerges! I would like to expose the Libertas Choir to these sounds.

What was your most exciting project as conductor?

JDV: To be quite honest, every time a project is completed, I think this one is ‘’as good as it gets’’.

What is the difference between an average and a splendid choir?

JDV:  A splendid choir has mastered all the technical aspects – diction, intonation, voice balance – but the choir members should also adhere to musical phrasing and let the music speak directly to the heart. Choirs with the X-factor understand that in a recital both the visual and audio senses of the audience should be transported.

What is your favourite music?

{list shortened}
Beethoven—symphonies, piano concerts, piano sonatas and violin concerto.
• Mozart— Die Zauberflöte opera and piano concerts
• Brahms – Ein Deutches Requiem and his violin concerto.
• Verdi operas – specifically Aïda and Rigoletto.
• Rachmaninoff – second and third piano concerts and Vespers, Op 17
• Mendelssohn – Elijah oratorio and violin concerto.
• Arvo Pärt - Fratres, Alina, Spiegel im Spiegel
• Bach – The two Passions, Mass in B Minor, Double violin concert

Contemporary sounds
• ‘’Yesterday’’ – Beatles; Cent Mille Chansons -  Frida Boccara’s version; Abba—‘’Waterloo’’;  ‘’If’’ – Bread; ‘’Mona Lisa’’ – Nat King Cole; ‘’Windmills of Your Mind’’-Barbara Streisand; Les Misérables, West Side Story—Leonard Bernstein, ‘’Piano Man’’ – Billy Joel … and really too much to name!

It must be so WOW to stand in front and hear the beautiful sounds when the Libertas Choir gives a recital … in the beginning of the year every choir member starts with zero knowledge. To think that you exposed so many people [almost 90] to all these sounds, words and wonder . . .

JDV:  It is a huge blessing to experience everything. But the greatest of all – Louwina and I have forged so many friendships with choir members. People that we would not have known otherwise. It is nice to befriend people who love singing.  They enrich your life. Music brings people together like nothing else on earth.

To visit the choir’s website, go to

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