Disquiet about the Big Sing

The Big Sing 2009

NZ Choral Federation

Secondary Schools’ Choral Festival 2009 – Wellington Region

Town Hall, Wednesday 3 and Thursday 4 June

The secondary schools’ singing contest called, rather, a festival, originally part of the Westpac Schools Chamber Music Contest, became a separate event in 1988.

It was a minor part of that contest, and the two distinct genres never sat very comfortably together. The choral festival has now become very big, with over 7000 singers taking part nationwide. (It’s interesting that there are over 2000 musicians participating in the Schools’ Chamber Music Contest nationwide – in an activity that, I risk saying, demands considerably more consistent hard work than singing does)..

Over 1100 of those singers are in the Wellington region, in 37 choirs from 23 schools from as far afield as the Kapiti Coast and Masterton. It meant dividing the festival into two parts with half the choirs performing on each of two days.

I could get only to the second of the Gala Concerts, on Thursday evening, but it was enough to gain a good impression of the condition of young people’s singing, their interests and trends, what is happening in school music and the nature of the guidance teachers are offering.

At that Gala concert, only two or three of the twenty choirs chose to sing music that could be considered classical, even marginally; yet, ironically each school’s selection of three pieces, that had been sung during the day sessions, usually included a more substantial piece. In the evening concert they took the easy, popular path.

Upper Hutt College Choir sang a piece from Saint-Saëns’s Christmas Oratorio, but in a perfunctory manner. Adolph Adam’s famous carol ‘O Holy Night’ just qualifies; it was sung, clearly articulated by I See Red Choir from Chilton Saint James School. Kapiti College’s Vieni a Cantare sang a piece by American composer David Childs who has a foot in both camps and they sang his easy-listening piece, ‘I Am Not Yours’, very nicely.

Very thin pickings if you’d hoped to hear some real music.

For example, Tawa College’s Dawn Chorus had sung a Handel chorus and David Childs’s ‘Set me as a Seal’ in the morning but chose ‘You’ll never walk’ alone from Caroussel for the evening audience.

Wellington Girls’ College 100-strong TEAL, who sang a piece by Elgar during the day, chose ‘Build me up Buttercup’ as their evening show-piece; certainly, it was excellently sung and presented.

Wellington East Senior Choir sang an Introit by Orlando Gibbons, but settled for a song by Dave Dobbin in the evening.

Contempora, a student-led choir from Chilton Saint James which had sung Dvorak’s ‘Lullaby’, sang the schmaltzy ‘True to Yourself’ in the evening. Likewise, the same school’s Seraphim won the award for the best 20th century art song with Rachmininov’s ‘The Angel’ but we didn’t hear it in the evening; instead, we got ‘Saint Louis Blues’ which was popular and indeed very well sung. But what a pity not to let the evening audience hear the award piece.

Another Wellington Girls’ College choir, the auditioned TEAL Voices, sang a New Zealand so-called art song, ‘For the Fallen’, with trumpet obbligato, which struck me as not very interesting; however, it won mention as Best Performance of a New Zealand art song. Yet in the daytime session they reportedly made a fine impression with a piece from Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater.

Another award for best New Zealand art song, Ella Buchanan-Hanify’s ‘Verses from Isaiah’, sung in a morning session, was won by a choir of long standing, I See Red from Chilton Saint James.

Rongotai College’s O le Ala Choir, of about 30 mostly Polynesian voices, sang ‘Musumusu atu’, a Samoan love song. Though their movement was not very polished, their dynamics and articulation were interestingly varied, it was very musical and rhythmically strong, and won them the Festival Cup as best representing the spirit of the Festival. I was surprised at that.

In the same class was the Wellington College Chorale’s ‘Summertime’, which was hugely popular with the crowd, with its energy, fine ensemble and well-rehearsed movement. But they had sung, a perhaps not very astute choice, Schumann’s lied Widmung, as well as ‘Kuarongo’ for which they won the award for the best waiata.

That was a joint win with St Bernard’s College Choir, student-led, which sang ‘E Papa Waiari’, very polished, containing a striking solo; it suffered not a bit through being short, yet arresting. That choir had sung a Fugue by Praetorius in the afternoon.

Hutt Valley High School entered three choirs and all sang popular or traditional songs in the evening: their performances were more distinguished for their presentation than for their singing, though the standard, ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’, was charming, if a bit too extended. The traditional Sotho song by the school’s Gospel Choir was rather an example of a choice dictated by the easy road to popularity.

Several choirs seemed to have devoted more time to quasi-musical tricks like clapping and various body movements, but failed to produce competent or interesting performances.

In all, there was a good deal more to be concerned about in the Thursday evening performances (and, judging from comments, the other sessions too) than to rejoice in.

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