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!

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