Music in the time of Monet – Note Bene at Te Papa

Choral songs by Debussy, Lili Boulanger, Poulenc and Ravel

Nota Bene, conducted by Christine Argyle.

The Marae, Te Papa

Saturday, 4 April 2009

One of the musical accompaniments for the temporary exhibition entitled Monet and the Impressionists was an hour-long, free concert by Wellington chamber choir Nota Bene. It was founded in 2004 by Christine Argyle whose voice is familiar to listeners to Radio New Zealand Concert and it has become known for its varied and perhaps quirky programmes, such as one entitled Sentimental Journey which recalled the character of broadcasting before most of the choir were born. The choir also operates in the market-place as a ‘choir-for-hire’ for weddings as such.

In 2007 I commented in a review that “it’s always impossible to predict the character of the next concert; so far, each has been a unique creation, built around a musical idea; not an academic concept, but something that lends itself to a programme that is invariably entertaining.”

This Saturday afternoon concert did not fall into that class for its character was prescribed.

It was a free concert, open to the rest of the museum and ordinary museum visitors, attracted by the sounds, came and went; some stayed standing at the back – every seat was taken; some drifted away.

Its setting was the first thing to remark. The uniquely designed marae or concert room if you prefer, decorated in the most remarkable way by Cliff Whiting, one of the most imaginative of Maori artists who has used traditional figures but juxtaposed and coloured them in a unique way. And there was something perhaps incongruous in a group of formally dressed singers performing French music mostly from the early years of the 20th century.

The ensemble began with three Debussy choral settings of three poems by the 15th century Charles duc d’Orléans: ‘Dieu! Qu’il la fait bon regarder’, ‘Quand j’ai ouy le tambourin’ and ‘Yver, vous n’estes qu’un villain’.

Only the second of the set struck me as of much interest; the others showed Debussy paying somewhat ritual homage to the age of Dufay. The third one was made delightful however by the group of soloists: Jane McKinlay, Marian Willberg, Peter Dyne and Jonathan Kennedy.

Lili Boulanger’s songs (‘Soir sur la plaine’, ‘Les sirènes’ and ‘Hymne au soleil’) were scattered through the programme and were more seriously interesting, illuminated by Emma Sayers’ colourful and individual piano accompaniments which enchanted my ear, particularly the first two which really were perfect aural equivalents of Monet . Anna Sedcole, Patrick Geddes and Kennedy again.

There were three songs by Ravel (‘Nicolette’, ‘Trois oiseaux du Paradis’ and ‘Ronde’) that hinted at folk song, sometimes droll, Satie-esque, with witty changes of tone,

Pianist Claire Harris played three Novelettes by Poulenc that punctuated the concert, they recalled now Couperin, now Satie, were flippant, spiky and the last an unpretentious, charming, rocking piece.

Whether it cast light on the Monet paintings I cannot say and whether the excellence of the choir with its splendid, lively singing registered with this varied audience, I cannot guess, but it can only be a good thing for Te Papa to use its spaces regularly to present other than the visual arts.

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