Works by Wellington Composers
Jonathan BERKAHN – Resurrection Cantata “The Third Day” (premiere performance)
– with works by Andrew BALDWIN, Pepe BECKER, Jack BODY, Jonathan CREHAN, Stuart DOUGLAS, Felicia EDGECOMBE, Gareth FARR, Maurice FAULKNOR, Jenny McLEOD, Carol SHORTIS
The Festival Singers
Rosemary Russell (conductor)
St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Saturday June 27th 2009
Some people might react to the expression “community music-making” with condescension bordering upon snobbery; but I can’t think of a better, more appropriate way to convey in words the remarkable scope and atmosphere of this joyous concert put on by Wellington’s Festival Singers, appropriately titled “Wellington Shines!”. A simple, cursory look at the names of some of the composers who contributed works to the concert would have been sufficient to alert concertgoers regarding the possibilities of a richly rewarding musical evening; and in fact, if not absolutely full- to-bursting St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace had a satisfyingly “well-peopled” feeling about it, which must have gratified the concert’s organisers. This feeling was reinforced in the most appropriate way imaginable by the standing ovation that greeted the conclusion of the evening’s most substantial item, Jonathan Berkahn’s Resurrection Cantata “The Third Day”.
But what better way to begin such a concert than with music by one of the most people-orientated of composers, Jack Body? His “Nowell, in the Lithuanian Style” required the singers to approach from a distance, gradually forming two groups on the platform and creating a charming overlapping vocal effect, the groups eventually merging as one, physically and musically (a metaphor, perhaps, for the evening’s bringing together of diverse peoples to enjoy a concert of music?). Just as engaging, but often in a sheerly visceral sense, is Gareth Farr’s work, his 1998 “Tangi te Kawekawea” based on a Maori chant announcing the beginning of the kumera-digging season engaging both choir and percussionists, with beautiful solo singing by Lydia McDonald in particular. Stuart Douglas’s 2003 work “Chanticleer” was another rhythmically infectious piece, featuring an attractive soprano line and snappy rhythmic support from the choir’s middle and lower voices. A simpler, more direct treatment of words was provided by Felicia Edgecombe’s attractive setting of G.M.Hopkins’ well-known “Glory Be To God For Dappled Things”, in which women’s, and then men’s voices by turns intone the melody before harmonising together.
A complete change of mood was provided by Pepe Becker’s piece for organ solo “Organis Plagalis”, using note patterns and intervals relating to birthdates, written for Douglas Mews, and played here by Jonathan Berkahn, an obsessive, even claustrophobic work which spent most of its time trying to fight free of the key of G to reach a D pedal note. Jonathon Crehan’s recently-composed “Three Songs” (2009) were great fun to listen to, the singer Frances Moore’s smallish, but responsive voice making the most of her opportunities to inflect the text and convey what the composer called the “fun, excitement and drama” of the pieces. Both singer and pianist-composer particularly enjoyed the second song, “Schadenfreude”, an amusing feline-phobic mini-drama. I thought the piano part a bit too heavily textured for the third song, everything needing a lighter touch for Eileen Duggan’s “Low Over Tinakori” to come clearly and engagingly through. But I liked Frances Moore’s singing, and found myself wondering how she would do Gershwin. Still ringing the programme’s contrasts, Maurice Faulknor’s “The Lonely Seagull” for flute and piano pleasantly and poignantly explored melancholic realms, with episodes of flurried passagework from both Bernard Wells’ flute and Jonathan Berkahn’s piano providing added interest.
Andrew Baldwin’s setting of “Ave Maria” won the New Zealand Secondary Schools Choral Composition Award in 2005. I was particularly struck by the music’s rich harmonies at “Blessed is the fruit” with full flowering on the word “Jesus”, and by the “rounding-off” effect of the first line’s repetition and “homecoming cadence” at the end. Carol Shortis’s setting of a text based on Psalm 128 “Show Us Your Ways” followed along similar richly-upholstered harmonic lines, its direct appeal linking strongly in effect to one of Jenny McLeod’s “Sun Carols” which came immediately afterwards. Entitled Indigo II: “Light of Lights”, this was another lovely work, whose rocking motion and direct simplicity of utterance linked past and present with great strength and candour, as if we were listening to the collective voice of a faith-based community.
In a programme note Jonathan Berkahn made the point that, while there were plenty of musical works whose subject was Christ’s Passion and Death, there were few dealing with the latter’s Resurrection. Using texts taken from the Gospels and recast into different kinds of song-forms, Berkahn’s “Resurrection” cantata recounted the story from Christ’s death and burial to his rising from the tomb and reappearance to his followers, charging them with “The Great Commission” of going forth and teaching all nations. With Kieran Raynor’s sonorous bass voice, the full Festival Singers choir and a group of instrumentalists that included violin, accordion, electric guitars, bass and drums, everything seemed set for a colourful, rip-roarin’ traversal of one of the world’s great stories. As with Baroque performing practice, the instrumentalists were given melodic lines and the occasional chordal cadence around which they were expected by the composer to fill in appropriate textures and interlocking rhythmic patterns, which they all seemed to do so in the manner born. The whole progressed with a sweep and momentum that I for one found quite exhilarating.
Particularly striking throughout was the ease with which the composer fused the music’s sometimes jagged rock elements with a gentler, more lyrical character, in particular the extended exchanges between the two in the “Do you remember?” section near the beginning, the accordion at times imparting an almost Klezmer-like ambience to the proceedings. Berkahn used these contrasts to great effect in different ways, the choir voices soaring over the top of the instrumentalists’ fierce rhythmic energies in “He descended to the dead”, and in the dramatic change of ambience from number to number, as with “Early in the morning” which followed immediately afterwards, guitars gently rolling over a folk-ballad rhythm appropriate to the text’s aftermath of mourning and quiet tragedy. And the sudden effervescence of realisation that death has in fact been overcome in “Did you hear the angels?” – the voices almost falling over themselves with urgency and delight – suggests that the story contains far more drama, tension and excitement than one would guess from its relative neglect as a subject by composers over the years.
Another memorable effect was the use of a folk-fiddle at the beginning of the work’s finale, where the instrument’s dance-like rhythm blended with the chorale-like theme sung by the choir – very Bachian, and skilfully put together. At the very end the organ spectacularly added its antiphonal voice to the proceedings, giving splendour and tremendous weight to the words “Christ is risen: he is risen indeed: Alleluiah!” After such a tumultuous finale, no wonder the composer and musicians received a standing ovation! – most richly deserved.