Auckland’s entertaining V8 Ensemble at Waikanae

Programme of arrangements of folk songs, Beatles’ songs, sacred choral pieces and popular songs (Waikanae Music Society)

V8 Vocal Ensemble (Judy Dale, Albert Mataafa, Virginia Le Cren, Stephen Rowe, Carolyn Medland, Brendon Shanks, Celia Aspey-Gordon, Rowan Johnston)

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday 10 October, 2.30pm

These Auckland musicians who form V8 are all former members of the New Zealand National Youth Choir and members or former members of Voices New Zealand chamber choir. Their years of working together show: their presentation is slick, blended and highly musical.  Half of the members have sung with the group since its formation; the other four are more recently acquired.  Their origins are in various parts of the country, and their individual choral experience is extensive.

The group sings without a conductor, Rowan Johnston simply starting the singers by eye contact, and cutting them off with the slightest movement of his music folder.  The selection of items showed skill in all fields of choral singing, but the most effective were perhaps the popular items.  The items were introduced by mezzo-soprano Carolyn Medland in a manner both informative and, at times, amusing. All the singing took place in front of the platform rather than on it.

A stunning start was made with ‘The Star of the County Down’ arranged by Goodall (presumably Reginald), in which the tenors sang the theme with enviable tone and character.

The spiritual ‘Deep River’ (arranged by the group’s undeclared leader, Rowan Johnston) displayed beautiful ensemble, and the outstanding men’s voices.  The women’s voice were very good, but the lack of real contraltos was a disadvantage in this piece.

The traditional Irish song ‘She Moved through the Fair’ (arranged by Daryl Runswick) proved to be an interesting version of the song, with unexpected harmonies.  The tenors performed the solo sections superbly, with lovely pianissimo accompanying parts.  Words were very clear.

One of two arrangements in the programme by Ward Swingle (though in this case he had reverted to Single status) was entitled ‘Country Dances’, and proved to be an amalgam of a number of American folksongs, very much in the Swingle Singers’ style.  It was good fun, and the enjoyment was assisted by precise words, with authentic accents being thrown in for the cowboy sections.

Two items from the classic repertoire followed: a very complex ‘Cantate Domino’ of Monteverdi, which featured a little too much vibrato for this music, and ‘Plorate Fili’ from Jephte, an oratorio by Carissimi. This was quite ravishing, the singers giving great attention to detail.  The use of the soft Italian ‘t’ rather than the hard English ‘t’ was most commendable.   The mood of the story was rendered most tellingly.  Here, and throughout the programme, endings were absolutely together.

The next items introduced a lighter tone, firstly with three arrangements of Beatles songs: ‘Blackbird’, complete with expert whistling, ‘Penny Lane’, and ‘Ob-la-di’, in which Albert Mataafa sang the solo, the others using various mouth techniques (not all were vocal) to accompany.  All very expertly done. Hearing these reminded me of the curious fact that all popular music appears to be in 4-4 time.

The other Swingle arrangement followed – a Chilean folksong ‘De Punta Y Taco’, meaning ‘Heel and Toe’.  Various vocal sounds were employed to accompany three male singers, who obtained an authentic Spanish folk sound to their singing.  The soloists changed to three women singing the tune, with the others accompanying.  It was very professional, sophisticated and skilful.

After the interval came the other two ‘classical’ items: an Ave Maria from recent composer Franz Biebl, and a Pater Noster of Jacob Händl, who lived in the 16th century.  The group divided to sing polyphonically in the Biebl item, with three singers to the left (mezzos, one tenor) and five to the right (soprano, one tenor, two basses).  There was a solo introduction from Johnston (bass) and a tenor solo in the second verse.  The balance was excellent, and the singers proved what agile voices (and lips) they have.

A different polyphonic arrangement was observed for the Händl work: women to the left and men to the right, but positioned closer to each other than in the previous item.  This produced attractive antiphonal singing, although with too much vibrato for my taste.  Balance was gain superb: in an ensemble of only eight singers each individual is very exposed.

Reverting to popular repertoire, V8 displayed their versatility in a perfect harmony arrangement of ‘Goodnight, My Angel’ by Billy Joel, followed by ‘Fever’ (John Davenport & Eddie Cooley) in which Medland sang the solo and the men provided good vocal percussion, and ‘Africa’ (Paich & Porcaro) where vocal doo-be-doos accompanied Johnston singing solo into a microphone, the while drumming on what appeared to be the amplifier.

New Zealand composition featured in the programme in the form of ‘Plumsong’ by Philip Norman (performed on record by the NZ Secondary Schools Choir).  In the V8 version the reading of the poems by A.K. Grant preceded the singing of the verses of the song.  The recitations were great fun: the poems had been written in the styles of various New Zealand poets, telling the story of Little Jack Horner in their very different ways.  The music then followed the styles of the words.

The first was in the style of Jenny Bornholdt, and was a very intricate piece.  A touching piece in Sam Hunt’s style followed – with tenor Brendon Shanks’s rendition of the poem being a hilarious imitation of the poet’s hoarse voice and reciting style.  Bill Manhire’s was a lament in formal style, as was the music, reminiscent of William Byrd.  Michelle Legat was represented by a kind of singing through the words.  The whole work was both clever and funny, and very well performed.

The concert ended with ‘Humpty Dumpty Medley’, a medley of English nursery rhymes arranged by Hart, as sung by the King’s Singers, in which the rhymes were all related back to poor old Humpty. This was most entertaining.

As an encore, the group sang Kern & Fields’ ‘The Way You Look Tonight’ in a gorgeous arrangement, very expressively performed.  This made an appropriate conclusion to the Waikanae Music Society’s enterprising, artistically superb, interesting and thoroughly enjoyable 2010 concert series.

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