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Baroque Voices – resplendent 20th birthday offerings

By , 28/06/2014

BAROQUE VOICES – 20th Birthday Concert
Music from 20 years of performance

Baroque Voices
Pepe Becker (director)
Douglas Mews (harpsichord, organ, piano)
Robert Oliver (bass viol)
Daniel Becker (guitar, percussion)

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Hill St., Wellington

Saturday, 28th June 2014

Wellington’s Baroque Voices celebrated twenty years of music-making with a concert on the last Saturday of June given in the same inaugural venue, the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, in Hill St., Wellington – a splendid place for music-making by vocal ensembles.

It was a truly epic and resplendent affair – perhaps a trifle overlong for listeners and performers alike, though the presentation certainly succeeded in bringing to the fore a sense of the variety and depth of repertoire the ensemble has tackled since its inception. Music Director Pepe Becker, in the programme accompanying Saturday’s concert, outlined something of BV’s history, in the process setting down something of the extent of the ensemble’s range and sympathies regarding performance.

In those twenty years the group’s personnel has markedly changed, the only original BV members remaining being Peter Dyne and Pepe herself. But though singers have come and gone, the performance standards have been maintained, judging by the invariably enthusiastic reviews the group has received. I’ve been going to their concerts for at least ten of those years, and have always been delighted with both the repertoire and its presentation.

On this occasion I actually thought that the ensemble warmed increasingly to its task as the evening progressed, becoming more relaxed and better-focused, though I did get the feeling that the group had worked harder on some of the pieces than on others. Given the range of repertoire covered in the concert this wasn’t really surprising – in fact it was amazing that the group maintained the levels of accuracy and energy that they did, especially towards the end. We would, I think, have been more than satisfied with about four-fifths of the items – especially given that a few of the choices seemed to me a tad insubstantial compared with some others.

But any more comment along these lines would sound curmudgeonly – faced with such generosity of performing spirit one feels far more inclined to celebrate what was done with the group’s usual skill, refinement and panache – which was, in fact, most of the programme (all of the bits I would have wanted to keep!). These alone were in themselves worlds of delight and wonderment, and their performances worthy exemplars of the ensemble’s quality.

The concert’s very beginning in a sense paid homage to the venue, which repaid the gesture with appropriate resonance and ambient warmth – the singers came in from the church’s congregational entrance behind the audience, Pepe Becker leading the way and singing, purely and rapturously, Hildegarde of Bingen’s haunting plainchant O Euchari, with the other singers humming in the style of an accompanying hurdy-gurdy. It all made for a William Blake-like “augury of innocence”, of wonderment such as one might experience as a child at a rare and mystical ritual – a moment of magic!

Baroque Voices followed this with another special moment – a performance of the very first item sang by the ensemble at that inaugural 1994 concert. This was Monteverdi’s madrigal Ch’ami la vita mia (That you are the love of my life), from the First Book of Madrigals, for five voices – a sonorous, flexible performance with moments of pure quicksilver. Of course Monteverdi’s music subsequently became a major focus for the group, presently exploring the entire series of Madrigals, and having already performed, most brilliantly, the resplendent 1610 Vespers in 2010 (can it really be four years ago?). Two other Monteverdi madrigals were presented in the concert’s second half, contrasting the composer’s later (Second Practice) style, accompanied by continuo instruments, with his earlier practice, using voices only.

Another particularly fruitful undertaking for the group has been the commissioning and premiering of no less than thirty-five new works (to date!) by local composers. A number of these drew their initial inspiration from existing works, or from texts set by composers already in BV’s repertoire. We were “treated” to four instances of this during the evening, all of which the group had previously performed, two from Jack Body, one from Mark Smythe, and one from Ross Harris, as well as more “stand-alone” works by Carol Shortis and Pepe Becker herself.

Jack Body’s Nowell in the Lithuanian manner followed a lovely, properly austere three-part performance of the anonymous 15th Century English carol Nowell, sing we – Body’s work, from 1995, was a setting for four voices, with the interval of a second dominating the music, making for a resonant and repetitive antiphonal exchange of excitable impulses tossed back and forth in a kind of minimalist-folksy way, sounding fun to perform, as it certainly was to hear.

More resplendent and declamatory was the same composer’s Jibrail (the Islamic word for Gabriel), here performed immediately after its Latin equivalent “Veni Creator Spiritus” – we heard the Latin chant sung antiphonally by two groups, most of whose members then re-formed in a semi-circle as a gong ritualistically sounded (played by Daniel Becker), the singers chanting the word Jibrail, and capping the growing vocal intensities by picking up and activating hand-held gongs, as if the tintinabulations were spreading through the world like wildfire.

This wasn’t exactly conventional vocal or choral music, but was a demonstration of how a creative imagination can at times defy convention and produce something that really works by its own unique lights – rather like Beethoven introducing voices to symphonic structures, which no-one had ever dared do before him. It’s also a matter of having the versatility to employ non-conventional means for expressive or creative purposes, which composers like Jack Body have demonstrated on many occasions.

A different kind of creative inspiration produced a work by composer Mark Smythe (Pepe Becker’s brother, incidentally), from music originally written for rock band.This was a setting of an anonymous Latin text A solis ortus cardine (From the far point of the rising sun) which Voices first sang as per Nikolaus Apel’s fifteenth-century Kodex (collection), in which version the lines had a gorgeous “floating” quality, the effect being of several plainchant strands beautifully interwoven.

Mark Smythe’s setting followed, employing an electric guitar as a kind of ground bass (the premiere of this work in 2005 used voices only, the guitar being a more recent addition, played here by Daniel Becker), and assigning to the vocal parts the “rock” song’s main melody supported by harmonies from the guitar parts. The result was rhythmically catchy, and harmonically attractive, having what I think of as a kind of oldish, modal flavour in places, with ear-catching modulations. I also enjoyed the purity and sense of freedom and space evoked by those stratospheric vocal lines drawn by Pepe Becker and Jane McKinlay.

A composer whose music has always intrigued and delighted me is Carol Shortis, who’s written a number of commissioned works for BV. Each of her works has seemed to me to inhabit its own world, with nothing generalized or taken for granted; as with the work presented in this concert, five settings of Japanese “death-poems” called Jisei, which Baroque Voices premiered in 2010. Typically succinct and intensely focused “final thoughts”, the poetry required similarly precise, sharp-edged sound-impulses which would “inhabit” the words, and vice-versa – and Carol Shortis’s music seemed to speak, sigh, sing and breathe with the verses to a remarkable extent.

Except that I thought the second Jisei, Senseki’s “At last I am leaving” could have been sparer of tone, more distilled in its realization (evoking more sparingly the “rainless skies” and the “cool moon”), I thought the performances evocative and finely-drawn. I enjoyed especially the third setting, Gesshu Soko’s “Inhale, exhale”, with its wonderful oscillations, and soaring lines describing the flight of arrows through the void. And the wordless realizations of the concluding Jisei, the letter “O”, were appropriately remote and self-contained, a final exhalation of breath closing the symbol’s circle.

Ross Harris contributed a work via a Baroque Voices’ commission in 2009, a setting of the anonymously-composed hymn Ave Maris Stella  (Hail, Star of the Sea). The ensemble again “prepared” the audience by performing a mixture of the plainchant verses with parts of another setting by Guillaume Dufay, a wonderfully tingling, ambience-stroking activation. Ross Harris’s work was itself described by Pepe Becker as “sumptuous”, doubtless as a result of her having previously performed the work – its premiere, in 2009.

I enjoyed the music’s oceanic evocations, sounds patterned like recurring waves, the voices interlocked, and the lines clustered – but then I thrilled to the growing intensities of sounds at the words “Qui pro nobis natus tulit esse tuus” (Who, born for us, endured to be thine), and a corresponding rapt, haunting withdrawal of tones and colour at “Ut videntes Jesum semper collaetemur” (That, seeing Jesus, we may forever rejoice together). And both the joyous affirmation of “Summo Christo decus Spiritui Sancto” (Honour to Christ the Highest, and to the Holy Spirit) and the deep, sonorous closing pages were intensely moving.

I ought to mention Pepe Becker’s own work, the Kyrie from her Mass of the False Relation, a title which had me intrigued until I read about the particular compositional device employed by the composer – the substitution of a sharpened or flattened note, a “false relation” of the original, sometimes in juxtaposition with the actual original, the harmonic tensions and clashes making for highly expressive results – colourful and piquant in places, tense and edgy in others, the listener waiting the whole time for lines and harmonies to resolve. I liked the “hollow cluster” effect of the “masquerading relatives” towards the piece’s end, during the final “Kyrie”.

I’ve unashamedly concentrated on the New Zealand composers and their works written for Baroque Voices, in this review – the concert contained a number of other delights which time and patience preclude a mention. But I mustn’t forget to pay tribute to the continuo musicians, Douglas Mews, who moved adroitly between harpsichord, piano and organ, as the items required, and Robert Oliver, whose bass viol playing was, as always, a delight. These two players have especially supported Baroque Voices down the years, almost to the point where any concert by the group wouldn’t seem quite the same without them.

To my mind, this concert reaffirmed both Baroque Voices’ and director Pepe Becker’s status as national treasures. These are musicians whose efforts help us find and nurture expression for whomever and whatever we are, occasionally, as here, holding our efforts up against the rest of the world’s by way of reaffirming both our identity and our individuality. May Baroque Voices continue to do the same on our behalf with distinction for at least the next twenty years!

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