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Secondary Students’ Choir celebrates thirtieth anniversary: stylistic and period adaptability, sheer quality

By , 22/04/2016

New Zealand Secondary Students’ Choir in Concert directed by Andrew Withington, accompanied by Brent Stewart, with Rebecca Ryan (soprano)

Sacred Heart Cathedral

Friday, 22 April 2016, 7.30pm

As I said two years ago “I reviewed the choir almost exactly two years ago; now they are here for another school holiday course. My enthusiasm for their performance has not diminished, nor has the choir’s skill and versatility”. This year is the 30th anniversary of the choir’s formation, and those of its alumni attending the weekend celebrations helped to boost audience numbers so that the cathedral was almost full. The excellent acoustic for choral singing in this venue make the experience of hearing a choir of such high calibre an utterly pleasurable experience.

A full programme meant quite a long concert, including speeches at beginning and end, but the choir of 57 members did not flag; all items were performed in a thoroughly professional manner, despite the brief time that it had been together in Wellington. This speaks not only of expertise, but of disciplined work prior to the choir meeting together. Recognition of this expertise has come from Canada, where the choir will sing as Guest Choir at the 2016 International Choral Kathaumixw, where it has attended twice before as successful competitors. In addition, its Music Director, Andrew Withington, will be an adjudicator, and the choir will perform over 10 concerts, followed by a tour of centres on Vancouver Island. An emphasis will be on performing New Zealand music.

The concert began with the choristers stationed around the cathedral to sing Media Vita, a medieval Latin antiphon, arranged by modern Irish composer Michael McGlynn. A precentor intoned the words at first, from the front of the cathedral, then the men joined in; a drum gave an occasional beat, then the women joined in, as the choir processed to the front. This was a dramatic and effective way to start the performance. Singing without scores, the choir produced bold, confident singing. At the start, Andrew Withington conducted from the aisle, but after a while he ceased, and merely moved his head slightly to indicate cut-offs.

Items were announced initially by the choir’s vocal consultant Rachel Alexander, and later by members of the choir. This was perhaps unnecessary since everyone had a printed programme. However, it was a chance for the audience to hear from some of the young people.

Heinrich Schütz’s lovely Singet dem Herrn revealed a good sound from the choir and a wonderful range of dynamics. Although I could not see Brent Stewart from my seat, it seemed clear that in this item he was playing an electronic keyboard with a simulated harpsichord sound. The instrument carried considerable more resonance than a ‘live’ harpsichord would have. Many items in the programme were unaccompanied; for others he played the piano. The contrapuntal nature of this work did not seem to faze these choristers, and they produced the German language well. The bass tone was sometimes a little coarse.

The performance of Mendelssohn’s Jauchzet dem Herrn, alle Welt (Psalm 100), again in excellent German, brought out the harmony, suspensions and other features very well. Chris Artley, an Auckland composer, gave us the first of two settings of ‘O magnum mysterium’. It was a very effective piece of writing, with overtones of American choral music; hints of Lauridsen. There were delicious harmonies and progressions. New Zealand-born, US-resident David Childs’s setting of the same text was very exciting, and featured excellent pianissimo singing, in which the choir exhibited great control. It was full of agonised tones.

More familiar was the ‘Alleluia’ from Mozart’s Exsultate Jubilate, sung by choir alumna Rebecca Ryan. It was a pity to have piano accompaniment for this great piece (organ would have been preferable, since obviously there was no orchestra at hand). The soprano floated through the florid passages most competently, but occasionally there was a slightly metallic tone. When the choir joined with her in American composer Mark Templeton’s Pie Jesu her lower voice was used initially; here her tone was mellow and mellifluous. This piece also had some Lauridsen characteristics.

Loch Lomond was sung in an arrangement by David Lantz III (another American), with flute and cello, both played by choir members. After an instrumental introduction, the song was first sung in unison, and then in harmony. It was impressive that the choir adopted Scottish vowels for authenticity. The tenors’ sound was very fine in this piece, and the balance of the choir, as elsewhere, excellent.

Sarah Hopkins was the composer of an enterprising piece titled Past life melodies. Google led me to: “Past Life Melodies is currently the most performed Australian choral piece in the USA & has become a standard repertoire piece for many choirs around the world”. It started with the choir humming, followed by open-mouthed ‘ah-ah’ sounds with full tone, basses producing a continuous drone below, on single tones, with some of the choir singing a repetitive tune of nasal syllables ‘nya-nya’) against that background, demonstrating aboriginal influences in this a capella music. Most remarkable was the choir’s singing of harmonic overtones, giving the ethereal, ringing sound one hears in Tibetan throat singing. This was spine-tingling stuff!.

The choir changed formation to a semi-circle for the next work, Rotala by contemporary Latvian composer Juris Karlsons. It began with the choir making sounds like a train, whistle and all. Then the singers fell to talking to each other, getting louder all the time, and finished the piece with fortissimo singing.

After the interval, we were treated to some new Maori music, composed by the Puanaki whanau, domiciled near Christchurch. Ko te Tahitanga tenei and Pakipaki were performed with guitars and kapa-haka. Tihi Puanaki is an award-winning broadcaster on TV and radio as well as a composer. The performance was full of verve and variety; one would have sworn the whole team was Maori.

Another two New Zealand works followed: Altered Days by Richard Oswin, and ‘Whanau Marama’ by David Hamilton. The former was an arrangement of a New Zealand folksong, sung with appropriate accent, and the second an elaborate piece in both English and Maori, with electronic sounds. The first were like wind-chimes, later other sounds occurred. The fine soprano soloist was Michaela Cadwgan.

Lauridsen himself appeared, with ‘Sure on this shining night’, now quite a well-known, but always beautiful piece. Feller from Fortune followed; a traditional Canadian song arranged by prolific composer of last century, Harry Somers, then continuing in North America we heard It’s de-lovely by Cole Porter and I got rhythm by George and Ira Gershwin – the first from memory and the second using music scores. The Cole Porter was accompanied most effectively by piano, bass guitar and drums, the Gershwin by several instrumentalists from the choir, the latter adopting American accents; and again for I sing because I’m happy by American Rollo Dilworth, with similar accompaniment to that used in the Porter song.

Returning to this part of the world, we had Lota nu’u & Manuo le vaveao, a Samoan song arranged by Steven Rapana, one of the choir’s alumni. Choristers walked around clapping, after making lots of interesting sound effects at the beginning, including from drums and sticks, then changing to rich harmony. The presentation was very dramatic. Finally, alumni of the choir were invited to join in the final item, an arrangement of Hine, e hine arranged by Andrew Withington. It began with humming. The vocal arrangement was quite difficult, and at times it was not easy to discern the melody.

The Dilworth item was repeated as an encore, demanded by much applause. The unified sound of the choir, its adaptability to singing in very different styles and eras of music, and its sheer quality, all point to a successful overseas trip.

It would have been helpful to have at least a few programme notes, and to have the dates of the composers given in the printed programme.

One Response to “Secondary Students’ Choir celebrates thirtieth anniversary: stylistic and period adaptability, sheer quality”

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