Vox Serbicus: lunch at Old St Paul’s

‘Slavic melodies’ A cappella concert of choral pieces from Serbia by Vox Serbicus choir conducted by Mima Nikolic

Old St Paul’s, Tuesday 23 June 2009

I last heard Vox Serbicus in 2007 and was impressed then by their skill and their grasp of the idiom of the Serbian liturgical and folk music they sang.  Part of the reason for my enjoyment of the music, which I’d first heard from them in 2004, was the effect of trips through Serbia when I was living in Greece in the 60s, and was susceptible to the music of all the Balkan countries. I still am, but I have to confess to a little disappointment this week.

This lunchtime concert, in this beautiful church, so visually appropriate to the sombre character of the mainly liturgical music that they sang, seemed to be at a lower temperature, probably on account of the rather small number of singers who were able to use a lunchtime in this way. The members include both Serb and Russian immigrants while about half are New Zealanders of Anglo-Saxon descent. Their genial compere was Ray Shore who offered interesting background to the pieces they sang.

There were simply too few men’s voices though those few made valiant efforts.  But it was not till the last item, Mnogaja Ljeto, a celebratory hymn, that they displayed their quite impressive strength, few in number thought they were. .

In my 2007 review I had noted the high praise they’d recently received at a festival in Canberra and admired the same ‘vivid dynamism and strong vocal projection, along with superb ensemble and balance’ that I had heard in 2004.

The first half was devoted mainly to church music by Stevan Mokranjac, Serbia’s leading composer in the 19th century, who composed much music for the Serbian Orthodox Church. Unaccompanied, they met some intonation challenges in the handling of the harmonies, always more difficult if there are too few voices to overcome the feeling of exposure and to create confidence in one another.

There were a couple of excerpts from Mokranjac’s Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom (which also has famous settings by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov); the second of these, ‘We sing to thee’, was more lively and rhythmically interesting than the first, the Alleluia. The only piece by another composer was a hymn by Rachmaninov with an attractive, flowing line.

The folk songs in the second half were more varied in tone though a melancholy permeated most of them, apart from a lively dance in a style that would be familiar to those who know the dances of the region.

It is a pity that other immigrant groups have not (to my knowledge) formed choirs to present the music of their homelands to Wellington’s large musical community and lovers of choral music. Vox Serbicus is a fine example of a worthy endeavour, helping in the vital task of keeping alive their language and music.