New Zealand Youth Choir: 30th anniversary concert

New Zealand Youth Choir, conducted by Karen Grylls, Guy Jansen and Peter Godfrey

Wellington Town Hall, Sunday afternoon, 12 July 2009

Only a few weeks after the 50th anniversary of the National Youth Orchestra comes the 30th anniversary of the New Zealand Youth Choir. It involved a large number of the choir’s alumni as well as the choirs two previous conductors, Guy Jansen and Peter Godfrey.

The Sunday afternoon concert was the culmination of a weekend of celebrations. Entry was free as a result of practical recognition by both the Wellington Convention Centre and City Council of the choir’s remarkable international stature and the kudos it attracts for New Zealand; for example, almost always winning big prizes on their three-yearly world tours; in 1999 at Llangollen they were ‘Choir of the World’.

I am assured that the New Zealand choir was a first youth choir to be formed in the world. It was inspired in 1978 by the then national officer for music education in the Department of Education, Guy Jansen, (is there such a post today?). He invoked the support of Peter Godfrey, then Professor of Music at Auckland University; Godfrey was enthusiastic and the choir gave its first concert in 1979. Jansen conducted it initially and Godfrey took over for the next six years in 1982.

The story goes that British conductor Sir David Wilcox was so impressed when he guest conducted the choir in 1980 that he founded a youth choir in Britain, and the rest of the world has followed.

This concert was in two parts: the first involving the present choir of 50 voices conducted by the present conductor of 20 years standing, Karen Grylls, and the second half, with the choir boosted to over 150 by alumni, the conducting was shared between Jansen and Godfrey as well as Grylls. The present choir began the concert with the ritual Whanau Te Iwi E, at once calling attention both to the Maori and Polynesian choir members and to the whole choir’s deep instinct for the character of present-day Polynesian music. Ferocity combined with the finest care with harmony and ensemble.

Later the full choir sang Hine e Hine, with a lucid solo contribution from soprano alumna Kate Lineham, and the Ka Waiata, and Christopher Marshall’s arrangement of the Samoan Minoi Minoi: they were among the most moving performances.

But there was much else. A chorus by Ugolini (Quae ista est) followed – nothing could have been more different and I must say the contrast left the latter, the choir divided into three parts, sounding somewhat limp. Mendelssohn’s Ehre sei Gott made a better impact, displaying the choir’s discipline and attention to detail. In the second half Professor Godfrey chose two other movements from Mendelssohn’s 1846 German Liturgy which, with the entire choir past and present, were more satisfying than the earlier piece.

Then followed several contemporary pieces: Jack Body’s familiar Carol St Stephen with men and women divided right and left, Schnittke’s Lord’s Prayer, which did not reveal its character fully.

Most striking of the present choir’s performances under Karen Grylls were the Credo from Frank Martin’s Mass for double choir and Norwegian composer Grete Pedersen’s Jesus gjor meg stille (‘Jesus bring me peace’) creating an extraordinary spiritual atmosphere, with the choir spaced out widely across the entire choir gallery. A sole tenor rising from an underlay of softly murmuring women’s voices, and the Norwegian language, provided one of the evening’s memorable moments.

After that Rautavara’s songs were rather bleak, but the first half came to a lovely ending with the Welsh song Suo gan.

Naturally, the whole choir, alumni and all, that filled the stage and choir stalls after the interval created a richer and more opulent volume of sound, the balance and blending of voices wonderfully managed by all three conductors. Dr Jansen conducted his own beautiful arrangement of the New Zealand Anthem; Lotti’s Crucifixus; again took full advantage of the power and depth of the bigger choir, as did the deeply felt spiritual Lord What a Morning.

After the two Mendelssohn pieces mentioned above, Peter Godfrey conducted Lux Aeterna by prominent composer and alumnus David Hamilton, present in the choir’s ranks and Godfrey called on him to take applause. Its ethereal, long sustained lines showed some of the most refined aspects of the choir’s training.

Karen Grylls conducted the two other Maori waiata, bracketing three of Vaughan Williams’s Five Mystical Songs. It seemed a little odd to have chosen as the penultimate items in such a celebratory concert these modest, undemonstrative songs in which the choir, though singing with considerable finesse, really took the back seat behind with James Harrison who sang the substantial solo parts and perhaps behind the colourful and interesting organ accompaniment from James Tibbles.

However, the Ka Waiata did the job of ending in a robust and ethnically apt spirit.

(An expansion of the review printed in the Dominion Post)

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