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Festival Singers – an entertaining but mixed operatic bag at Waiwhetu

By , 18/06/2017

Festival Singers present:
SUNDAY AT THE OPERA
Music by Wagner, Gounod, Puccini, Verdi, Donizetti, Rossini, Massenet, Batiste, Delibes, d’Andrea, Mascagni and Lloyd Webber

Festival Singers conducted by Jonathan Berkahn, with Barbara Paterson (soprano), Heather Easting (organ), Thomas Nikora (piano) and The Festival Strings

Waiwhetu Uniting Church, Lower Hutt

Sunday, 18 June 2017

It was a splendid idea for a concert:  Perform sacred works, or quasi-religious works, by some of the great opera composers. Vary it with instrumental pieces, including some for strings, and a soloist or two. Introduce the items in informative and amusing, but brief, words.

The formula was fine, but the performances did not always live up to the promise.

Using an electronic organ, sometimes with piano, to accompany the pieces suffered from the unregenerate organ at this church; it produced a rather woolly sound, particularly in the lower registers. It completely lacked resonance – its two speakers at the back of the church being inadequate to convey much definition of tone, the sound being too confined.

This would not have assisted the choir in picking its pitches; much of the time the choir sounded insecure, and intonation was variable, especially on higher notes.

The first piece was a chorus from Die Meistersinger by Richard Wagner. The choir began with good attack, but here and elsewhere blend was not good: too many individual voices could be heard. The German language was pronounced very well.

Verdi’s ‘Ave Maria’ from his Four Sacred Pieces was next. Berkahn explained the unusual scale on which it was based. It is certainly a very difficult piece, and the choir did not really bring it off. The tone of the singers was not consistent, and pitch was often not on the spot.

The much plainer Ave verum corpus by Gounod was easier to handle. It was conducted by Barbara Paterson (her conducting debut). The humming in the early part was very good. Next was the same composer’s ‘Agnus Dei’ from his St. Cecilia Mass. Latin pronunciation was not quite up to the level of the earlier German. A good tenor soloist featured in this piece, and the choir’s balance was good, but soloist Barbara Paterson’s strong vibrato was too much for a piece like this.

Variety was introduced by the string quartet plus piano (The Festival Strings, not named in the printed programme, though Jonathan Berkahn did introduce them by their names. He, incidentally, was the pianist.). They played Massenet’s well-known ‘Mediation’ from his opera Thais. It was beautifully performed, particularly the solo first violin part; the other instruments had much less to do, and could not be heard very clearly.
The conductor then played on the organ Offertoire by Édouard Batiste. Played on this organ, it was a rather blaring piece without much character; in fact, crass and vulgar (as Berkahn had warned us!).

Delibes was next, with a ‘Kyrie’ from his Messe Breve. It was sung by women only, but I found it rather a boring piece; I daresay as part of entire mass it would have been balanced out by the other movements.

The marvellous ‘Va pensiero’ from Verdi’s opera Nabucco ended the first half of the concert in triumphant style, Thomas Nikora accompanying on piano. The opening was particularly good, but unfortunately some choir members ignored the fact that part of the chorus was unison. The ending was very fine.

Giovanni d’Andrea’s Sinfonia in C for organ was another very loud piece (played by Jonathan Berkahn) that on this instrument appeared to have little merit. That part of it of a rather ‘rum-te-tum’ character was played so fast that sounded ridiculous.

Rossini was up next, with Barbara Paterson conducting again, his ‘Salve Regina’. It began unaccompanied, then piano and organ joined in.

Donizetti was represented by two excerpts from his Requiem: ‘In memoria aeterna’ and ‘Rex tremendae’. Here, the choir had much more confidence and accuracy (possibly because a number of them would have sung this recently, in the Choral Federation’s May regional workshop). There was some good pianissimo singing, but also too many individual voices were prominent, particularly from the men. The letter ‘s’, which is more of a problem in the English language than in Latin, was often not sounded together by the choir. The ending of the second excerpt was lovely.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s popular ‘Pie Jesu’ from his Requiem was next, with Barbara Paterson as soloist. Here again, her voice did not seem to me to be suitable for this charming, simple melody. The choir acquitted itself well, as did the second soloist, a choir member.

Another delightful string piece (with piano and organ) followed: the well-known ‘Intermezzo’ from Mascagni’s opera Cavalleria Rusticana.

Wagner closed the programme, as he had opened it, with the quasi-religious ‘Pilgrims’ chorus’ from Tannhäuser, sung in English. Parts of it required rapid playing from Heather Easting on the organ. It made a good ending to the concert.

One Response to “Festival Singers – an entertaining but mixed operatic bag at Waiwhetu”

  1. Claire Vekony says:

    As a lay person I thoroughly enjoyed this concert ,as it was what I might call my kind of music. Loved the organ,piano and the instrumentals as well as the singing. For a small Choir I thought they executed the music very well.It was a very fulfilling after noon for me ,and my daughter, who possibly spoke out loud a couple of times Sorry !She really wanted to be part of it ,so well done Festival Singers and friends.

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