Songs My Mother Taught Me – Mother’s Day Music from Nota Bene

Music for Mother’s Day

Music by Grieg, Bruckner, Pärt, Tavener, Holst, Gounod, Biebl, Gorecki, Dvorak, Haydn, Vautor, Hely-Hutchinson, Hrušovskŷ, Richard Puanaki, David Childs, David Hamilton, Carol Shortis

Nota Bene Choir

Frances Moore (soprano) / Julie Coulson (piano)

Christine Argyle (director)

Lyndee-Jane Rutherford (presenter)

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Hill St., Wellington

Sunday 9th May

Christine Argyle’s “Nota Bene” Choir got the mix right for their Mother’s Day concert,  with a programme of music whose first half did strong, sonorous homage to Mary, the Virgin Mother of God, before paying tribute after the interval to ordinary, everyday mothers, with songs of affection, remembrance, and wry humour – and finishing with “Rytmus”, Ivan Hrušovsky’s well-known “choral etude” in praise of Eve, the first human mother, as a brief, but exciting finale. With a waiata-like guitar-accompanied opening (actually called “Ka Waiata” and written by Richard Puanaki), and featuring greetings and spoken commentaries by theatre and television personality Lyndee-Jane Rutherford, the event kept an appropriately light touch throughout, the music expressing an attractive amalgam of fun, energy, sentiment, nostalgia and profundity in nicely-gauged doses.

The programme skilfully rang the contrasts throughout, so that we had juxtapositionings such as solemn, Wagnerian Bruckner leavened by excitable, energetic Aarvo Pärt, and then David Hamilton’s West Indian rhythms next to Henryk Gorecki’s rapt, richly-harmonised mesmeric lines. The choir’s configuration would often change between items (womens’ voices only for Gustav Holst’s “Ave Maria”, for example), and soprano Frances Moore contributed several solo items accompanied by pianist Julie Coulson, which were interspersed throughout the concert.

After the opening preliminaries,  Grieg’s “Ave Maris Stella” demonstrated the choir’s finely-nuanced control of tone and texture, not over-moulded, so that those piquant harmonies of the composer’s sounded as fresh as ever – a far cry from the rich upholstery of Bruckner’s very Wagnerian writing for voices (like something out of “Lohengrin”) in his “Ave Maria” setting, featuring some testing top-of-the-stave lines for the sopranos, who emerged from the encounter with credit. All the more excitable, then, seemed Aarvo Pärt’s hymn to the Virgin “Bogoroditse Djevo”, very “Slavic” in its energy and love of contrast.

I equally enjoyed the work of another “holy minimalist”, John Tavener, whose conversion to Russian Orthodoxy inspired works such as the chant-like “Hymn to the Mother of God” (the narrator touched briefly on the importance of Mary in the Eastern Orthodox liturgy), here delivered with wonderfully suffused resonances, the choir relishing the clustered harmonies and glowing evocations of worshipful prayer. The sparer textures of Gustav Holst’s music (sung by womens’ voices) exposed a touch of stridency during the more “striving” lines of the opening, but the withdrawn ambiences at “Et benedictus fructus tui Jesu” readily captured the setting’s beauty.

Frances Moore’s turn was next, with Julie Coulson providing admirable support for her soprano partner in Gounod’s perennial favourite “Ave Maria” – a lovely performance by both musicians, the singer having plenty of upward heft and true tone on the high notes, though her breath-taking was a bit obtrusive in places. Still more changes were rung by the next item, Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria” setting, in this performance for men’s voices only, the singers arranged with a trio of voices set apart, and soloists within the choir, giving the textures a degree of spaciousness and making for lovely antiphonal effects. Each exchange between the voices had a slightly different character, varying dynamics and colours in a perfectly delicious-sounding way. The trio of voices (tenors Nick McDougal and Andrew Dunford, with baritone Isaac Stone) got a rich ground-sound, while the higher-voiced group had more plaintive, almost reedy tones which emphasised their placement and their different lines.

Music by two New Zealanders and two “Davids” followed, firstly David Childs’ “Salve Regina”, an attractive minor-key setting with a soprano soloist, Gilian Bruce, from the choir, some momentary ensemble imprecisions of little moment when set against the heartfeltness of the singing. The last few utterances  were notable for the terracings of the words “O clemens, o pia” and “dulcis virgo”, the descriptions nicely differentiated.The work made a good pairing with the “other” David’s piece that followed, the “Carol of the Mother and Child” by David Hamilton, the Caribbean rhythms fetching up some delicious syncopations from out of the setting’s infectious gait.

Concluding the concert’s first half was Henryk Gorecki’s sublime “Totus Tuus”, a hymn of devotion to the Virgin Mary, written to commemorate Pope John Paul’s third visit to his homeland of Poland in 1987. “Totus Tuus” translated from the Latin means “totally yours”, and was the Pope’s apostolic motto, the opening words of a prayer declaring utter devotion to the Virgin Mary and the Holy Trinity. Declamatory and arresting at the beginning, with cries of “Maria”, much of the work was rapt and devotional, using conventional but extremely rich harmonies which varied in colour and intensity as the piece progressed. The contrast was marked between the work’s forthright opening and utterly mesmeric conclusion, the word “Maria” at the end repeated more and more softly, like the conclusion of “Neptune” from Holst’s “The Planets, with the womens’ voices disappearing gradually into the ether. The effect was of having undertaken a significant journey through realms of timelessness, thanks to the strength of the voices’ response to Christine Argyle’s confident, patient direction throughout.

Not surprisingly, the concert’s second half had a rather more secular feel, with the focus directed firmly towards earthly mothers, beginning with a song written by David Hamilton “When My Mother Sings To Me”, featuring a unison opening verse, whose words were then given canonic, and then harmonic treatment in subsequent verses. A natural ally for this item was, of course, Dvorak’s “Songs My Mother Taught Me”, here sung by Frances Moore, tremulous, and with some breathless phrase-ends, but sweet-toned and with wonderfully secure high notes. Her two other solo items, a folk-song by Josef Haydn and a somewhat quirkily theatrical setting of the “Old Mother Hubbard” nursery rhyme by Victor Hely-Hutchinson, were brought off with aplomb, the Haydn song-birdish and radiant, and the Hely-Hutchinson setting mock-Handelian with a dash of dramatic rhetoric, singer and pianist relishing the fun of it all. A pity the quintet of voices which came together to perform 17th-century composer Thomas Vautor’s “Mother I will have a Husband” didn’t bring more temperament, more “spunk” to their otherwise nicely-sung performance – it all needed to be a bit more boldly characterised.

But the highlight of the second half of the concert was a piece composed by Carol Shortis, in response to a commission from one of the Nota Bene choir members, Judy McKay. This was for a work dedicated to her mother, Dulcie Reeve/Coutts, described as a “pianist, piano geacher, gardener, mother, grandmother, homemaker and friend to to many – generous of Spirit, loving of Heart”. The music was to a text by the Bengali poet and author Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), a poem called “My Song”. Pianist Julie Coulson’s arabesque-like figurations made for an atmospheric, almost bardic beginning to the music, the voices exploring a wide range of expression, from whispered to full-throated tones, colourings subtly changing as the composer gently drew together the choir’s cluster-harmonies (with a particularly telling harmonic “shift” towards the end). The whole work was suffused with glowing feeling, by turns radiant with the soprano soloist soaring aloft, before gliding gently downwards, and a softer tranquility of remembrance and wonderment which lingered after the sounds had ceased to be.

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