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Nota Bene among the elements at St Andrew’s

By , 20/09/2009

Nota Bene handle Ghosts, Fire, Water: Conductor: Robert Oliver

Music of the elements, from Renaissance England and [reactionary] New Zealand. With Donald Nicolson (piano and organ), Rachel More (actor)

St Andrew’s on the Terrace, Sunday 20 September

It was an imaginative theme but, as so often, musicians seem only dimly aware of the importance of lighting and atmosphere in creating that last but important element in giving their audience a good time. The bright, shiny surfaces of the church and a zillion watts of light were enough to discomfort the most sophisticated and determined ghost.

I tried shutting the eyes but it didn’t make a difference.

In the same way that the character of designs, costumes, lighting, physical credibility of the singers is as important (nearly), as the musical performance in an opera production, so the visuals are significant in any live performance (otherwise I’d stay home and listen to a CD).

The idea of this programme was interesting; it took the choir out of its more common sort of programme, which has been rather more varied, covering most genres and eras of vocal music. But was a full evening of renaissance music a bit much from such an ensemble, even with a novel theme – the elements – guiding it and a baroque and renaissance expert at the helm?

Yes; by the end of the concert, I felt it was. The director and choir were obviously conscious of it, as the concert was punctuated by poetry and both halves ended with pieces by New Zealand composers. The last item, Douglas Mews (Senior) Ghosts, Fire, Water, which gave its name to the concert, was as typically intriguing and surprising as that underperformed composer usually is; nevertheless, I felt that the music, for all its atmosphere, was rather the handmaid to the words, by James Kirkup, inspired by his seeing the Hiroshima Panels.

The piece by Jonathan Crehan (Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire – his own words), accompanied by the piano, well written for the voices, conventionally modern in its syncopations, suggested that Crehan might have had a bigger ensemble, such as the National Youth Choir, in mind.

The concert opened with the other main theme – settings of the texts ‘Veni sancta spiritu’ and ‘Veni creator spiritus’, first an anonymous plainchant Apart from the recurring theme of the elements which even found material in a mass by John Taverner (The Western Wind).

Its parts were separated by a variety of motets and songs as well as poems by Tudor poets and others such as Longfellow, Blake, Frost and Emily Dickinson; most of the words in the  second half were from Shakespeare, as you’d expect, from The Tempest and ‘Blow, blow, thy winter wind’ from As You Like It. ‘The Quality of Mercy’ speech from The Merchant of Venice seemed a stretch in relation to the theme.

The poems provided a context for the music; or was it the other way round? The connections were, naturally, more intellectual than instinctual: Joyce scholars might have rejoiced in the echoes between the water in his poem and the Palestrina motet ‘Sicut cervus’, but the reality was arbitrary; was its place strengthened by Joyce’s musical talent and sensibilities? Rachel More read the verses, with a clear voice, though she did not always capture the tone of the subject, her voice tending to follow the same falling cadence at every phrase end.

There was more interest and variety with the use of several capable soloists from within the choir, notable were Jane McKinlay and Katherine Hodge and bass Chris White who, sometimes with others, sang as a quartet or quintet. Hodge’s voice was a fine match for the Mews piece.

The final note of variety came with a two-section piano piece by Pepe Becker, Aquarius (aqua L. = water, you see), played with considerable insight by Donald Nicolson.

But whatever the verbal and conceptual notions that drove the programme, the sheer variety of words and music, choral ensemble and solos, complex polyphony (Dufay or Palestrina) and the casual effect that slightly misfired in ‘When that I was a little tiny boy’, it was a good evening.

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