Photo Credit: Pierre van Vurren and Styling Vektor Productions

Renette Bouwer is celebrating 25 years of uncovering musical gifts and uniting people through sound with the University of Johannesburg’s Choir! Her journey:


Johannesburg, South Africa (29 August 2023) — Renette Bouwer has spent a quarter of a century helping singers hone gifts they hadn’t realised before. Like two stretched strings of equal pitch; when one is plucked the other vibrates, which is exactly what Bouwer has done for the University of Johannesburg Choir as Choirmaster — stretching singers to their fuller talents so they can vibrate in gorgeous musical unity together with the audience.

As Bouwer celebrates the end of an incredible era, she reflects with us on her musical journey—from student to master.

Bouwer grew up in a musical home in Middelburg, Mpumalanga. Her parents were both amateur singers. Her father, an engineer by profession, taught himself to read sheet music and her mother played the piano. This love of music spilt over into music lessons for her from an early age. After a few years of music lessons, she discovered that she had a talent that set her apart and was to change the course of her life.

“It really was a gift, a present I didn’t have to work for,” Bouwer says thoughtfully, “I realised that I could hear things that other people can’t, I had this inner knowledge of how music works, and I could put notes together to create different emotions. The idea of a gift had new meaning for me. Many people have gifts like mine, but don’t have the opportunity to develop them because without discipline added to the gift, the gift can’t learn to walk, to run, to fly.”

This understanding she says, is one of the reasons she has been so successful with UJ Choir.

“I am introduced to many singers with gifts that they haven’t even realised yet, and by opening their ears through the music and finding their gifts, they actually find their souls. Sometimes they find their reason to live, what they are here for.”

Bouwer studied music at the University of Pretoria, and sang in the university’s choir with Professor Petru Gräbe, a mathematician with the heart of a musician. German-educated, he introduced Bouwer to the German school of music – Bach and Brahms – and gave her a strong foundation in choral music. She later went on to sing under choirmaster Richard Cock in the then SABC Chamber Choir.

A temporary Choirmaster position for the RAU Choir (now UJ Choir) led to the beginning of her career, and something even more powerful—merging two musical backgrounds (Western music and African music) in a South Africa still finding its united voice in the early 2000s.

For Bouwer a single choir that reflected different musical backgrounds and skills held a lot of responsibility, but she agreed to the opportunity on two conditions – she would choose the singers herself, and secondly, she would not attempt to teach her singers traditional African music, instead bringing in people who were skilled in the form. Over time, she developed an auditioning method that was fair to everyone and would not exclude people who were brilliant but, at that time, stymied by a flawed system.

“Now, 20 years later, I think I have found the secret. If you listen to UJ Choir singing Western music, you will be convinced that you are listening to a Western Choir. When they sing African music, you’ll think that it is an African choir. This skill is rare in South Africa, and for me that is one of my greatest achievements,” Bouwer reflects.

“I have taught my singers to sing, to listen and to feel and to keep aligning themselves with each other and the music. That is why they are so special.”

And special they are – UJ Choir has performed and took the crown in several international competitions in Prague, Bratislava, Miltenberg and Pardubice, as well as the World Choir Games in South Africa. They have released fourteen albums during Bouwer’s tenure, with When the Earth Stands Still launched during the pandemic.

Bouwer will now hand over the reins, beginning with the performance on 2 September at the Linder Auditorium of The New Covenant composed by Antoni Schonken and arranged by Pieter Bezuidenhout, especially for this performance. This is a poetic work written originally in Afrikaans and translated to English by Antjie Krog and narrated by artist, activist and poet Lebogang Mashile.

The work is about nature and the Earth, shares Bouwer of the upcoming performance.

“[Antjie] urges us to see what is going on around us and to listen to the Earth, a bit like how I teach my singers to listen. We need to confess our sins against our planet and acknowledge how have we got to this point of destruction so that we can initiate change, moving forward,” the choirmaster adds.

Bouwer invited UJ (and RAU) choir alumni to join the choir for this performance, some who had not sung with a choir in 20 years. It is the first time Bouwer will have a truly mixed choir of all ages, students and professionals all united in sound and passion.

The New Covenant is the perfect way to end my time with the choir. When I heard it two years ago it stopped me in my tracks. I knew it was my big work. It explains everything I stand for – I stayed with what I started, and I believe so strongly in the message: like a choir needs to act as one, there must be unity amongst us all to change the world and to heal the Earth,” Bouwer concludes.

There are two performances of A Mass for the Universe – The New Covenant on Saturday 2 September 2023 at the Linder Auditorium, 27 St Andrew’s Rd Parktown Johannesburg.

Sources: Supplied
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Ashleigh Nefdt is a writer for Good Things Guy.

Ashleigh's favourite stories have always seen the hidden hero (without the cape) come to the rescue. As a journalist, her labour of love is finding those everyday heroes and spotlighting their spark - especially those empowering women, social upliftment movers, sustainability shakers and creatives with hearts of gold. When she's not working on a story, she's dedicated to her canvas or appreciating Mother Nature.

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