On Sunday 30th August 2015, Alfred Patrick Addaquay made history when he premiered Laudateur Christus, the first
oratorio written and publicly performed by a Ghanaian composer. The event was held at the Covenant Family Community
Church at Cantoments, Accra.
I heeded Alfred’s admonition to “not be late”, and arrived at 3:30pm, an hour before time. The chapel was almost empty, save for the performers themselves. I was (personally) surprised to find the Ghana Police Central Band, Accra, on stage with members of St. John’s Methodist Junior Choir in plain clothes.
The band’s name appears on the official poster, so it was my negligence of that little fact. Most of Choral Music Ghana’s promotion efforts focused on Addaquay and the Belcanto Chorus.
At the time I got there, the brass and woodwind band were rehearsing Adeste Fidelis and Thine be the Glory. They will perform these two hymns at the end of the evening’s main event. The Ghana Police Central Band was conducted by Inspector Felix Osei Maboah. It’s music director is Dr. Frank Hukporti.
I spent a few minutes with the choristers in the dressing room and had the pleasure of speaking to Inspector Elikplim Adzroe, a big fan of Choral Music Ghana. We spoke extensively about the organisation, the police band and possible future collaboration. Expect more from us in the near future.
30 minutes to time, less than fifty people sat scattered in the chapel. Rehearsal and sound testing was halted. Professor Kwabena Nketia, Africa’s most celebrated musicologist walked in at 4:20pm. I first met the legend while organising Pax Choir KNUST’s Choralfest with Newlove Annan. He’s since been a regular face at concerts I’ve attended, including a number of Addaquay events this year. I love Nketia’s passion and support for young talents. For a man as long lived and experienced, gracing the concerts of his “sons in music” with his presence is a big deal.
At 4:40, ten minutes after the stated time of the concert, Nana Akuffo Addo walked in to much applause. The chapel was getting full. Moments later, the police band took the stage.
I failed to get the official list of pieces performed at the event, so details here are sparse. The notable pieces the police band performed included Pachelbel’s Canon in D and a medley of themes from Hans Zimmer’s Pirates of the Caribbean OST.
The audience (slowly swelling) sat muted throughout the police band’s performance until the third piece was completed. The fourth piece was a lively tune perfectly executed to our collective delight. The dynamics were well articulated and all parts of the police ensemble responded accurately to the conductor’s directions. The audience’s applause brought us to the famous piece: Pachelbel’s Canon in D.
A solo bassoon started the canon’s famous line. The saxophones joined, and then the flutes and percussion. The latter drew my attention and I realised something was - odd about the performance. This wasn’t exactly Pachelbel’s canon. It was something else.
This was the Canon in D rewritten in 6/8 time for a more authentic African rhythm - an idea introduced and popularised by Nketia himself. Despite the enjoyable rhythm, the performance was dominated by the brash brass instruments. I would have prefered that they were muted because the woodwinds were drowned entirely. The audience didn’t have the chance to enjoy the interesting interaction of voices that makes this canon so good.
The police choir’s last performance was the medley of themes from the Pirate’s of the Caribbean. It got off to a shaky start, this time with the clarinets drowning out every part (even the brass!) save the bass and snare drums. Even the less agitated themes sounded loud and intimidating. However, the final performance was aced by the percussion. The boisterous rhythm was felt at crucial moments of their performance, and when it wasn’t needed, the drums were gracefully silent (or mild, when called for).
The next section of the night began with Alfred appearing in a white suit to personally introduce his work and his choir. Every Addaquay performance I’ve attended begins with a crash course in concert etiquette. It’s one reason why I’ll always encourage any serious concert goer to attend an Addaquay event early.
The man clearly understands the need for proper audience participation when serious music is being performed. Unlike pop concerts that encourage more extroverted reaction from the audience, serious music demands rapt attention because that is the only way one can observe the genius a composer works into his/her music.
My first lessons in concert etiquette were given by Mr. Ken Kafui in 2005 when I was in Achimota School. It’s pretty standard comportment; nothing out of the world: you sit quiet throughout the performance and pay attention to the music. Applaud only when the conductor indicates that the music is over - remain silent otherwise. A good performer knows to follow the conductor’s direction before, during and after the performance. The audience is part of the music and it’s only right that they do likewise.
Silence is crucial to understanding and enjoying serious music: Addaquay did not fail to mention that. And the audience (for the most part) heeded him. It’s this engagement with the audience that makes Alfred a spectacular man. He not only wishes us to hear his music: it’s important that we hear it the right way.
My only pet peeve is his disclaimer that “the pieces will be short” so the audience bear with him. I don’t remember him say this at the premier, but he’s made this statement more than once at his British Council recitals. Perhaps it’s just me: I love my music long and interesting. A composer of his stature needs time to fully develop his ideas.
I hope Alfred doesn’t give in to our growing addiction to brevity. Not in his most serious work.
Laudateur Christus was written in 2005 as Laudate and revised later. it recalls man’s gratitude to God. The work was renamed this year. It was written for SATB chorus and solos and piano. Unfortunately, there was no piano on stage. Addaquay and Theophilus were on two synthesizers, emulating other instruments.
After a brief sound check, Addaquay played the overture. The transition was too smooth so the opening piece was well underway before I realised what was happening. I can make no comment about it.
The chapel was three-quarters full when the first air, Blessed is He, began. It was a slow and graceful start to what will turn out be a long night. Long and beautiful.
Before the overture, Addaquay pointed out his influences: Handel’s Messiah and Haydn’s Creation. This was quite clear from the ornate overture, the three part structure of the oratorio with a second instrumental number, a “Praise Symphony”. It was quite an adventure trying to identify borrowed themes, though I later felt that was more of a distraction. More on this later.
I’ve been spoiled by the Aggrey Memorial Chapel Choir’s spectacular choir rise before performing. Blame Ken Kafui for that one too. The Belcanto choristers rise for the first chorus was not uniform. That did nothing to rob the music of its excellence.
The second chorus was - as we already expected - distinctly baroque in style. Based on the sacred text “Unto us a child is born”, it was a fitting nod to Handel’s enduring chorus on the same text. Quite naturally, extensive melismatic phrases dominated our impression of the music. All these felt perfectly authentic - a testament to Alfred’s keen study of the work of the great masters.
At the same time, his own ingenuity could be heard if you paid close attention. Addaquay’s work was reimagining baroque music.
The highlight of the first part of the oratorio include the first quartet “Ring the Bells”. This performance brought the tearful joy and solemnity I love to associate with the Christmas spirit. There’s little of it that I remember now. Instead, what I felt while listening remains with me: a potent form of traditional purity, almost rustic and innocent yet grand.
I was on the gallery when the quartet started, camera in hand and looking for aerial shots. I stopped my work and wondered how such music could be written by a contemporary composer. Those who know me know my dislike for almost every possible contemporary reimagining of that Christmassy joy I loved as a child. It’s the reason why I stick to the traditional favourites and follow choirs and other ensembles that perform such without needless encomiums that try to “spice up boring tunes”.
No. Addaquay got it right. “Ring the Bells” should be Ghana’s own Christmas carol. I will gladly sing it this December.
Before the fundraising interlude (hey, the concert was free, but these people need to be paid for their work!) Alfred thanked his uncle Mr. John Addaquay, a musician who identified his nephew’s talent early on and bought him his first keyboard.
So far, the music had been brilliant - save for the synthesizer. I felt the string emulation did a lot to hide some of Addaquay’s brilliant finger work. If you haven’t yet heard him at a piano recital, you don’t know what Alfred is capable of.
Alfred, in his typical humble manner, launched his album titled “Rescue the Perishing”. I’ve still no idea what’s in it, but Choral Music Ghana will review the album and spill all of its juicy secrets soon. The score of the oratorio was also on sale for choir masters and performers. A copy went for 30 cedis, while the CD was sold to me for 5 cedis.
I finally began to see traces of Haydn’s influence in the third part (though one member of St. John’s Methodist Junior Choir pointed out earlier examples) with the happy choruses. The third part of the oratorio, focused on praises to Jesus Christ was less boisterous than the first two.
Granted, the mood was clearly elevated, but it all seemed relaxed, quite like how I felt throughout most of Haydn’s Creation.
Addaquay’s Praise Symphony was an exciting interlude. Again, the synthesizer got in the way, but Alfred had the opportunity to display his virtuoso. I couldn’t help notice that the piece sounded like something to be performed by a larger ensemble. I have no idea what Alfred had in mind when writing this. The Praise Symphony has a stirring marching rhythm to it. I believe I have heard the motif somewhere, but I can’t place it. If it turns out this is an original Addaquay invention, then I cannot state the magnitude of his brilliance.
I felt the same way about his chorus “We Praise thy Name O Lord!”. The music sounded so - perfect - I was blown away by the fact that it was an Addaquay original. I know genius when I hear it.
After a brief descent into hymn-like solemnity, we heard the air “O Lord I will Bless Thy Name”. It was the climax of the oratorio. That might not have been Alfred’s intention but, after over an hour in the presence of such music, something that had been working inside me since we started reached its tipping point.
I teared up.
The cadence sent shivers down my spine and - but for Alfred’s admonition - I would have stood and applauded him! I sat quietly and took it all in. It was almost too much, almost too good to be true. In that moment, I felt that Alfred was Ghana’s greatest active composer.
Praise Ye the Lord was the first time I noticed deliberate dissonance in the music. It was a clear departure from classical norms and gave me room to get excited about the music. This man wasn’t just reimagining baroque music. He was moving it forward. A final point of note was the lack of a proper ending. The chorus left us hanging. Clearly, Alfred was telling Handel that this era we live in is different, exciting, unexpected.
It was around the end of the performance that the choir’s strain began to show. Belcanto Chorus, Addaquay’s choir did a marvelous job singing what must be a challenging work. You could tell that they were drained, but the singers held their ground for the three final “cadential” choruses. Cadential in the sense that, the oratorio could have successfully ended after the first two, but the music persisted to my delight (and to the slight ire of some of the audience, who began to leave in small groups at this point).
Addaquay announced another concert - a night of hymns with the St. John’s Methodist Junior Choir and the Ghana Police Central Band. The concert will be performed on the 29th of November. The venue is as yet unknown.
For a teaser, the choir and band performed Adeste Fidelis, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross and a resounding Thine be the Glory. The audience joined in and so ended the night.
If this review has been long, I don’t apologise. The concert was longer and a hundred times more glorious than what I’ve described. Alfred summed up the typical Ghanaian’s experience with classical music in this grand work. Serious concert goers will find something to love in each part of Laudateur Christus.
The night ended late, and I had to hurry to catch the last trotro to Spintex.
I had a bumpy ride, as you’d expect. I was tired and looking forward to another Monday morning with all the hassle that comes with work. But while I journeyed back to Tema, my mind was elsewhere. This is the power of serious music. After spending nearly four hours in the presence, I was not on earth. I had a rare smile on my face, and everything seemed fair and good. Even the 37 station.
Patrick was right. The response is inward. All the while I paid no attention to the insults hurled at careless drivers, or the petty quarrels over 20 pesewas. All the while one phrase kept playing in my head: We Praise Thy Name O Lord.
I can still hear it.
– by Jesse Johnson