Wellington Community Choir’s 5th Birthday Gala Concert

Wellington Community Choir and Nota Bene Choir, Julian Raphael (director),  also featuring:
Carole Shortis (composer/conductor), John Rae (composer/drummer), Club Ukulele / Marimba Mojo / Djansa Djembe Drummers

Wellington Town Hall

Saturday 18th September, 2010

The printed programme accompanying this rousing and heart-warming event contained a number of enthusiastic testimonials from members of the Wellington Community Choir regarding the group and their activities, one of which I thought beautifully summed up the reason people get involved with music, be they music-makers or listeners:

“…The choir is a place where I found my inner voice. Not only my singing voice, but my real inner voice. When I sing, I feel I can sing my being – I can BE….”

I quote without permission; but though it expresses a kind of metaphysical idea, the sentiment readily puts into simple words the power of music to act upon people, be they performers or listeners – to connect with the spirit and move the deepest emotions, as well as warm towards and bond with others. All of these impulses were triumphantly on display in and throughout the Wellington Town Hall on Saturday night, through the auspices of the Wellington Community Choir and Nota Bene Choir, under the directorship of music educator and inspired conductor Julian Raphael. The Hall was as full as I think I’ve ever seen it, and at times the place simply shimmered with sounds and rocked with rhythms which seemed to engage one and all, musicians and audience.

Along with Julian Raphael and the two choirs, a number of various groups and individuals specifically contributed to the evening’s kaleidoscope of colourful music-making – composers Carole Shortis (Wellington) and John Rae (Scotland) both contributed pieces to the concert, and each took part in the performances, the first as conductor, and the second as the drummer. Instrumental groups such as Club Ukulele (players from within the Community Choir), Marimba Mojo (from Lower Hutt), and the Newtown-based percussion group Djnsa Djembie Drummers added their distinctive and ear-catching timbres to particular pieces, their participation underlining a community spirit pervading the whole, while maintaining a high level of performance expertise which marked the presentation throughout.

Having attended many “classical” concerts of all kinds in the Town Hall I couldn’t help but draw comparisons with some of these past experiences and the present concert, being as I was mightily impressed at the Community Choir’s level of support and the degree of involvement with and enjoyment of the performances by this near-capacity audience. Given that classical music organisations everywhere are concerned with trying to make ends meet, faced with the problems of aging audiences and decreasing numbers of attendees at concerts, I wondered whether there were things to be learned from the success of this present undertaking.

Of course, the “families and friends” factor would have provided a good deal of fuel for the occasion’s popularity, something that professional performing groups don’t generally rely upon to generate good houses. But quite apart from the numbers attending, I thought that what any classical concert organiser would envy here was the out-and-out identification and involvement of those present with what the performers were putting across – in short, those almost palpable lines of connectiveness between performers and listeners.

To be fair, I have to say that I’ve experienced several classical concerts this year which have demonstrated a similar frisson of inter-communication, in one or two cases at events which weren’t particularly well-attended. Sometimes it’s the music itself which generates the initial excitement, as with the recent presentations of Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 at St.Mary of the Angels Church in Wellington. Sometimes particular musicians can themselves create in advance powerful and compelling expectations of involvement with what they present, as invariably happens whenever the charismatic New Zealand String Quartet performs (the group’s Schumann-and-Shostakovich concerts, for example). Also, anybody who’s experienced a song recital presented by soprano Margaret Medlyn would readily testify to her all-embracing identification with what she performs and her ability to get it out there in no uncertain terms (in a particular recent case before a resoundingly enthusiastic Hunter Council Chamber audience).

Finally, the Vector Wellington Orchestra regularly presents its concerts with wholehearted enthusiasm from conductor Marc Taddei and with total commitment from its players. In each of these instances, the experience for me was of something out of the ordinary – not a whiff of routine, of stuffiness, of blandness or tired convention. And so it was with this present concert – still, would that such mutual engagement could happen more regularly in the classical music world!

The items chosen by the Community Choir for the concert covered an enormous range of human emotion and activity – spiritual, political, cultural and environmental. They were grouped partly for variety’s sake, and partly to allow different performers opportunities to give of their best. The first bracket of songs featured the Choir itself, the singing testifying to both the arranging and conducting skills of the director, Julian Raphael, who unerringly guided his wholly-amateur voices through pieces featuring rich-toned unisons and complex contrapuntal lines alike. His arrangement, for example, of the Shaker melody “Simple Gifts” featured the unadorned tune as a prelude to increasingly complex and interesting variations; while the traditional (though not the commonly heard version of the song) “Amazing Grace” was launched by men’s voices in parts, and joined by women’s voices, the arrangement featuring haunting fourths and lovely, tightly-wrought harmonies.

I also liked the choir’s singing of the “traditional Sotho songs of struggle”, registering the voices’ change of timbre to a striking “ethnic” quality, as well as the muscularity and confidence of their rhythmic syncopations. The final song in the bracket was “Come by Here” from Liberia, performed in this case in memory of the well-known and much-respected Wellington ethnomusicologist Allan Thomas, who had died during the week.

A brief but entertaining trio of items featuring the instrumentalists of “Club Ukulele” featured two Lennon-McCartney songs, one of which prompted some startlingly-focused deliveries from the women’s voices of the phrase “I Wanna Hold Your Hand!”, the climactic interval as resonant as any period ensemble’s singing of a fourteenth-century motet! The Nota Bene Choir were then introduced; and the group rang the changes with a bracket of songs, including an arrangement of “Waltzing Matilda” (by Ruth McCall) that seemed to fuse traditional Aboriginal chant-ambiences with fragments of the well-known tune, concluding with echo effects and “overtone” resonances, the whole creating a properly haunting impression at the end.

I liked also Carol Shortis’s arrangement of “Khutso”, which was described as “a song for Soweto”, one which combined a native African dialect with the Latin words “Agnus Dei”, setting the rhythmic native chant against the more flowing Latin phrase, then alternating fragments of both at the end – extremely haunting and effective. Carol Shortis was both composer and conductor for “People Come and Sing”, written especially for the choir, with this evening’s performance of course a world premiere! A resonant opening, with overlapping lines of declamation led to a unison imperative to “Come and Sing”, the rhythm developing a swinging trajectory whose fervour evoked Gospel-like singing in places, the voices of the choir responding with proper “ownership” to the music.

After the interval the Djansa Djembe Drummers got things away to a stirring restart with rhythms and resonances that reminded me of the last Phoenix football game I attended at the Westpac Stadium (it might well have been the same group performing on that occasion!). Changes of stage lighting added plenty of atmosphere and colour, ambiences that continued throughout the bracket of African songs, with their rhythmic pulsings, in places having a pronounced “protest movement” feel, especially Julian Raphael’s arrangement of “Woyaya”, a song from Ghana.

As colourful and ear-catching was the work of the group Marimba Mojo, whose instruments, besides looking fantastic, produced a great sound, the players performing dance music from Zimbabwe, and inviting audience participation in the dance (a number obliged,and were then invited onto the stage!). Of course the nature of marimba performance itself suggests a specific gestural choreography, with which the group delighted us throughout its bracket of items.

The other major commission for the concert, beside that of Carol Shortis’, came from Scottish composer and jazz drummer John Rae, in this country of late as composer-in-residence at the New Zealand School of Music. His work Ricky, a setting of words by a choir member, Sarah Hughes, was a tribute to his father-in-law, and featured a lovely, leaping choral melody line, the tune’s trajectories mingling a second time round with instrumental colourings creating folkish ambiences, strings, guitar and marimbas contributing to the resonant glowing of the whole, the chorale punctuated with drumming rhythms, and coloured by what sounded like Gaelic chanting. I loved the rhythmic ambiguities of the voices’ interactions with the instruments, creating a “Music from the Spheres” kind of effect, an endless paean of life’s celebration.

To conclude, Nota Bene’s voices took the stage again for an entertaining “dialogue” song from Mexico (arranged by Mike Brewer), the choir establishing the music’s infectious rhythmic carriage, and with soloists from the choir interlacing their conversational/confrontational singing lines with wonderful elan. Some heartfelt tributes paid by choir members to Julian Raphael, and a couple of audience-participation songs later, the Choir’s Fifth Birthday Gala Concert was over – on the face of things quite a haul, but with energies from performers and enthusiasm from the audience seemingly undimmed to the end, a tribute to all concerned!

Donald Nicolson at the Maxwell Fernie organ

Winter Recital Series on the Maxwell Fernie Organ


Recital on a Plainsong Theme: ‘Ave Maris Stella’ (i.e. works based on this plainsong)


Marchand: Grand Dialogue

Anon: Ave Maris Stella – Plainchant on haute contre; Recit. de Nazard ou de Pierce; Tierce en Taille; Fugues sur Ave Maris Stella

Frescobaldi: Mass for Organ from Fiori Musicali – Toccata; Kyrie La missa della Madonna (‘Cum Jubilo’); Canzon doppo L’Epsitola; Recercar dopo Il Credo; Toccata Avanti Il Ricercar; Recercar

Anon: Ave Maris StellaPlein Jeu; Petite Fugue sur la Cromorne; Trio

Dandrieu: Offertoire pour le Jour de Pâques

(Spelling inconsistencies are on the original Frescobaldi manuscript, a photocopy of which Nicolson was using.)


Donald Nicolson


St Mary of the Angels


Saturday 18 September


A small audience heard a fine recital on this splendid pipe organ.  Unfortunately the printed programme, which did not bear the date, had some of the items in the wrong order, and movements did not all appear printed.   The corrected version appears above.


In the past week alone, Donald Nicolson has appeared in concerts playing the piano, the harpsichord and now the organ.  His versatility and musicality are, sadly, to be lost to New Zealand as he travels to greater opportunities in Australia.  He has been playing the organ at St Mary of the Angels since the beginning of 2008 and has, I am sure, been a great asset here, as he has elsewhere in Wellington’s lively musical scene.


His group ‘Latitude 37’, in which the other two instrumentalists are Australian, played for the Wellington Chamber Music Society’s Sunday afternoon series in May last year.


The first work in this recital was grand in several senses: in design, in registration and in execution, although I thought the pedal rather too loud for the manuals in the opening passages.  The work revealed some out-of-tune reeds on the organ, which recurred in later parts of the programme – probably due to the amount of wet weather recently.  It’s amazing how this slight tuning aberration can make a fine organ like this one sound like a fair organ!


Members of the choir of St Mary of the Angels sang the Ave Maris Stella plainsong on which the movements were based, in the two anonymous works: before the several movements and at the end, and also between the sections of the Kyrie in the Frescobaldi work.  This was, in the main, very effective, though the male voices were not so pleasing as were the females’.   Each organ movement then began with the plainchant.


The first anonymous Ave Maris Stella featured a quite lovely third movement: Tierce en Taille, and a bold set of fugues to finish.


The Frescobaldi certainly demonstrated the versatility of Maxwell Fernie’s organ, but was much weightier, louder and more varied in registration than the composer himself would have had at his disposal.


After the opening Toccata and Kyrie came a Canzon with beautiful registrations.  The variations in this movement were very appealing.  


The second Ave Maris Stella setting was characterised by a delightful interplay of parts in the Fugue, utilising gedackts; the Trio used contrasting registration.


Dandrieu’s attractive Offertoire was for the greater part jolly in mood, appropriately for Easter.  It was preceded by a plainchant from the choir on the word ‘Alleluia’.  A charming work, it was made up of interesting variations.  They alternated in the main between loud and soft registrations.  I counted 26 renditions of the plainsong in its various guises, with registrations of reeds, full organ, flutes, diapasons, gedackt, a low reed, chimney flute, high flutes.  There were numerous uses of full organ, or near-full organ to make the louder contrast between softer sections.


This work made an enjoyable ending to a satisfying recital.   Nicolson’s playing could hardly be faulted; just an occasional rushing of the short notes was all that caught my ear in a first-class technique.


Further recitals in the series are by Michael Stewart on 3 October, and Thomas Gaynor on 7 November, both at 2.30pm.  The plainsong theme for the former is Veni Creator Spiritus.


From darkness to light – soundscapes of the mind from the NZSO

BRITTEN – Four Sea Interludes from “Peter Grimes”

MacMILLAN – Veni, Veni, Emmanuel

RAVEL – Pavane for a Dead Princess

R.STRAUSS – Death and Transfiguration

Colin Currie (percussion)

Alexander Shelley (conductor)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday 18th September

I liked this programme because it broke the mould – it didn’t follow the concert format which the NZSO seems to visit more often than not, to the detriment of pieces such as Ravel’s enchanting Pavane pour une Infanta défunte (or, Pavane for a Dead Princess). The common concert layout (overture, concerto, interval,  symphonic-type work) is obviously favoured by orchestral managements because it provides variety over the course of an evening, and enables the appearance of a prominent soloist in the concerto, who will hopefully bring in the crowds. But to repeat this formula almost ad nauseam is counter-productive, as it negates in the longer term the variety that a single concert seeks to provide, as well as reducing the opportunity for concertgoers to hear “live” many delectable orchestral pieces of only moderate length. The present concert, perhaps due to its matinee status certainly had its “star soloist” in the first half, but then featured two shorter works after the interval, the aforementioned Ravel and a tone-poem by Richard Strauss, Tod und Verklarung (Death and Transfiguration).  Ravel and Strauss certainly provided a contrast, though I wonder how many people would agree with me that some music “feels” better if heard in the evening, as opposed to the morning or afternoon? – somehow, Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration seemed diminished by the daytime ambience, whereas the Ravel was perfect – perhaps more of the same composer’s music would have been preferable, the gorgeous ballet Ma Mere L’Oye (Mother Goose) immediately coming to mind as a different kind of darkness-to-light experience.

I was interested to hear Alexander Shelley conduct, being the son of one of my favourite pianists, Howard Shelley (such connections, made helpfully or otherwise, always add interest to a performer’s aura and music-making abilities). An extremely elegant-looking young man, he brought a brisk, certain focus to his music-making throughout, beginning with the first of Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, a Dawn whose streaks of light across the sky and answering shimmers of reflection from the water were clearly and bracingly articulated in this performance, precise rather than long-breathed and atmospheric. Surprisingly, I fancied the strings’ off-beat syncopations weren’t as clear as I thought they might be at the outset of Sunday Morning, the rhythms taking a while to “settle”; but amends were made with the next piece Moonlight, the playing catching the piece’s deep-toned “hymn to the night” aspect splendidly and sonorously. The concluding Storm’s fury burst upon us vehemently, with properly baleful brass and wonderful tuba notes, though I felt the side-drum a bit glib-sounding (not enough “flail” to really sting); and though the “running frightened” scherzandi passages towards the end had plenty of energy, I wanted more tension in the build-up towards the apocalyptic downward cascade that concludes the piece. So, a good performance, but I thought a trifle wanting more of the knife-edge in places (perhaps more difficult to achieve during the afternoon!).

James MacMillan’s Veni, Veni, Emmanuel is, in effect, a percussion concerto, able to stand as an abstract piece of music in its own right, but illuminated from within by the composer’s intention for the work to represent “the human presence of Christ” and the accompanying liberation of humankind “from fear, anguish and oppression”. Its title forms a direct link with the 15th Century French plainchant of the same name, regularly sung by choirs during the Christian season of Advent. In fact, the composer apparently began working on the piece on the first Sunday of Advent, and completed it on Easter Sunday of the following year, dedicating the work to his parents.

This concert featured percussionist Colin Currie, like his fellow-Scot Evelyn Glennie (who premiered this work) one of the world’s foremost instrumentalists, who’s helped to develop amongst both audiences and composers a new appreciation of percussion and its expressive potential. Very much on show throughout this piece, Currie revelled in the diversity of sounds which colour the opening sequences of exchange – amid orchestral fanfares all the percussion families were introduced, the soloist underlining the variety of texture, colour and spatial depth of sound by physical movement whose fluidity and energy defined the spaces between the instruments and suggested a journey paralleling the course of the music. Then there’s a “heartbeat” section, where pulses of varying metricality play, propelling and colouring the music, the soloist’s patternings punctuated with sharp, coruscating comments from the orchestra. After building towards frenetic rhythmic passages which suggested we’d reached the “Dance” section of the work, Colin Currie was able to show us a more deeply-felt, poetic aspect to his musicianship with the central “Gaude” section (the title taken from the refrain of the plainsong) – marimba figurations gently danced over prayer-like murmurings from the orchestra, as if revealing for listeners the spiritual calm at the centre of a believer’s universe.

There was more dancing, brilliantly characterised by a virtuoso stint from the soloist on the vibraphone, great chorale-like fanfares from the brass, and antiphonal percussion effects, with the timpanist matching the soloist and the orchestral musicians producing triangles, spreading the scintillations throughout the soundscape (a pity about the noisy children in the gallery!). And what wonderful resonances Currie achieved with the tubular bells at the end, the resonances seeming to last for an eternity (I didn’t think the sounds of burbling children at that point entirely inappropriate – wasn’t it Christ who said “Suffer the little children to come unto me, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven”, or words to that effect? – but some people who spoke to me during the interval were very angry about the disturbance!).

Fortunately, not one extraneous post-interval warble from the auditorium spoiled the limpid beauty of Ravel’s homage to the painter Velázquez, Pavane pour une Infante Défunte (in the printed programme both attempts at reproducing the French title came unstuck). The composer’s point about the music being an evocation of a dance rather than a funeral lament was nicely realised by conductor and players. Before the Strauss work, Death and Transfiguration, Alexander Shelley spoke to the audience concerning the programme of the music, explaining the composer’s intentions and tracing the music’s course throughout – so we were fully prepared for the fray, as it were, though some of the audience would have been at last year’s performance of the same work by the Wellington Orchestra, so it wouldn’t exactly have been an unknown quantity. On that occasion I thought the Wellington Orchestra surpassed themselves, with committed, full-toned and fiery playing under Marc Taddei’s direction; so I was interested to hear what the NZSO would make of it, albeit in a different venue and with another conductor.

Only with the first arrival of the “Transfigured” theme did I markedly prefer the earlier performance – somehow (and probably aided by a more ample and resonant acoustic in the Town Hall) Taddei and his orchestra managed to “fashion” the theme from those preparatory gesturings more convincingly and organically, as if it was all the time growing into the shape and form of its first appearance; whereas with Shelley and the NZSO the warmth and radiance of it all seemed like a new idea, fetched up from somewhere else. Perhaps it was that Taddei’s reading seemed longer-breathed than Shelley’s, just that bit more boldly and deeply conceived; though in other respects, the NZSO’s playing for Shelly sounded truly resplendent in all departments, the winds in particular covering themselves with glory. The performance certainly had a sheen and burnished splendour of its own, the NZSO’s greater weight and refinement of tone imparting, if not the whole truth, a Brucknerian radiance at the very end that was well worth the waiting for.