New Zealand Secondary Students’ Choir astonish in competition sampler

Taste of the NZSSC’s programme for British Columbia choral competition in July  

Musical Director: Andrew Withington; accompanist: Grant Bartley

Pataka Museum, Porirua

Friday 16 April, 7.30pm

Listening to a choir of young singers is always exhilarating; to hear the New Zealand Secondary Students’ Choir is more than that.  These young people, from secondary schools throughout the country sing well, and their discipline, balance and consistency of tone and pronunciation are exemplary.

What is even more astonishing is that the whole of their programme that was well over an hour long, was sung from memory.  This included everything from Schütz, Mendelssohn and David Childs to Swedish folksongs, to ‘Kua Rongo’ (performed with poi, including one young woman using long poi) to a Samoan item with drumming and exuberant action.

This choir is to travel to a competition in British Columbia, Canada, fairly soon.  They are certain to wow the audiences there, as did the 2003-04 NZSS choir; at the same competition it won three choral categories, more than any choir in the history of the competition.

These young women and men have an adult sound, yet without losing the freshness of youth.  They are well-trained by their young conductor, Andrew Withington, their vocal coaches Kate Spence and Morag Atchison, and doubtless by several language coaches also.

Most of the programme consisted of unaccompanied singing, but some items were ably accompanied by Grant Bartley on piano, and a few had the addition of double bass and drums.  There were few solos, but tenor Benson Wilson was notable in ‘Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen’ as arranged by British choral conductor and composer, Bob Chilcott.

There was variety in tonal colour different levels of sound for  the varying moods and characters of the songs, including some lovely pianissimo singing.  However, the main problem was that the choir’s robust sound was often too much in the acoustic of the main concourse at Pataka.  The space is quite narrow, and this meant a lot of reverberation that had not much room to get away (as it does in a cathedral).  To the right of the men (left from the audience’s viewpoint) was a large wooden sliding door that closes the entrance to the galleries.  The sound bounced off this, making the men’s sound seem strident at times.

The choir’s musical director needs to be aware of the need to adjust to each auditorium the choir sings in.  Similarly, the piano sounded unnecessarily loud and percussive at times, the effect of the narrowness of the space and the wooden floor.  At the concert I attended on Sunday afternoon in St Andrew’s on The Terrace in Wellington, it was notable that a velvet rug had been placed under the piano, to absorb some of the sound.

It was marvellous to see as many tenors as basses in the choir; surely the envy of every other choir!  It is to be hoped that these young men will all graduate to community choirs who are desperate for tenors!

From a very interesting and varied programme it is only possible to mention some items, without writing an extended essay.  The two Swedish Folksongs (arr. Hugo Alfvén) were lilting yet lively, and to my untutored ear (though I have been to Sweden), the pronunciation sounded authentic; at any rate, everyone pronounced the vowels in the same way.  David Hamilton’s ‘Caliban’s Song’ was a most beautiful setting of Shakespeare’s words.

Visually, there was variety from the placing of the singers depending on whether the work was for single SATB or double choir (all movements were efficiently and gracefully made); in the second half the singers wore diagonal sashes.  Then there were the actions, including poi, in ‘Kua Rongo’ and much vociferous actifity in ‘Mauga e ole Atuolo’.  ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’ and ‘I got Rhythm’ were accompanied by appropriate swing movement.

The choir has excellent choral technique, and intonation was perfect.  Songs were sung in German, Latin, English, Swedish, Maori and Samoan  eleven songs in all, plus encore.  Through all of this memorised programme, with its difficulties, the choir members appeared relaxed and confident.

Go well in Canada!  You deserve to win your classes.  New Zealanders should be proud of you  if only the news media would inform them of your existence and your excellence!

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