New Zealand Secondary Students’ Choir astonish

New Zealand Secondary Students’ Choir conducted by Andrew Withington

Cathedral of the Sacred Heart. Friday 9 October 2009

Some of the most brilliant music making comes from the young, not necessarily individually, though there are plenty of cases of remarkable prodigy, but from young choirs and orchestras. En masse, individual imperfections are inaudible while the energy and the delight of youthful music-making are what makes the impact.

It’s not uncommon to hear claims that professional orchestras’ performances are little affected by the conductor, that their years of playing together are what makes the difference between the ordinary and the distinguished. It’s not really as simple as that.

But in the case of a youth choir or orchestra, the character of the conductor is probably critical. In the case of orchestras, the world has the example of Gustavo Dudamel and his Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, and we have had plenty of evidence of brilliant performances by the New Zealand Youth Orchestra under gifted (usually overseas) conductors who have worked miracles.

This time the miracle was wrought by a young New Zealand conductor, Andrew Withington, a protégé of former NZSSC conductor Elise Bradley.

The gasp of astonishment was audible as the choir opened the evening with the chorus from Haydn’s Creation ‘Achieved is the glorious work’, such was the overwhelming energy and intensity of the performance. This was certainly full-blooded both as a composition and in its execution.

I seem to find the wholehearted, simple religious belief of a Haydn a lot more acceptable than the sort of self-conscious piety evinced by Mendelssohn’s essays in the genre for example. The Kyrie and Sanctus (‘Heilig’) from the latter’s Die deutschen Liturgie followed, again accompanied excellently by Grant Bartley at the organ. I had to confess to finding both quite admirable, splendidly sung, with vivid sopranos and uncommonly good male voices – both tenors and basses.

A Sanctus by (Christchurch composer) Richard Oswin followed, with portentous piano introduction, echoing Carmina Burana a little, well presented. A setting of the Salve Regina by David Childs, United States-based New Zealand composer, showcased a solo soprano from the choir who projected well; interestingly written, rewarding for the choir I imagine.

The choir exhibited its richness and power in the showy piety of Parry’s ‘I was glad’, with women’s voices in gentle expressiveness.

I was impressed with the delivery, and pronunciation of a group of Swedish songs in which attention to dynamic subtleties was striking.

And the gentle spirit depicted by a Hebrew song, ‘Erev Shel Shoshanim’, offered a beautiful, comforting alternative to one’s current perception of the character the political entity from which it comes.

William Mathias’s setting of ‘Blow, blow, thou winter wind’ was spirited and vivid.

Then came a group of Brahms’s Liebeslieder Waltzes, whose singing was so affecting, authentic, often quite vivid, and plain charming, that I decided that choral performance was the best way of singing them.

The choir reappeared in the second half wearing Maori motifed sashes to open with Kua Rongo from Wehi Whanau, replete with beautifully executed gesture and movement. They created a thoroughly authentic Maori vocal quality in a waiata that sent shivers down the spine: the sort of performance that, heard when one is overseas, quite undoes one.

Three New Zealand folksong arrangements by Richard Oswin offered some evidence of the reality of at least a small body of genuine folksongs; again, their performance was most persuasive, building to an impressive climax.

Repeatedly, the choir exhibited new facets of their skills and versatility: in an affecting song by David Childs, ‘The Moon is Distant from the Sea’, with a flowing piano accompaniment supporting singing that illuminated words and emotions with a splendid flair for varied dynamics and intelligent phrasing. In my notes I had written – ‘one of the most beautiful and expressive songs of the entire evening’. I must have meant it!

From then on popular favourites were the rule: ‘Hine e hine’, ‘Ain’t misbehaving’, ‘I got rhythm’, ‘Nobody knows the trouble…’, all sung with an uncanny idiomatic energy and finally ‘Pokarekare Ana’, from a solo soprano with a pure, youthful voice, uncluttered by ornaments.

This was simply (one of?) the finest choral concerts of the year.

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