Bach: Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248
The Tudor Consort and the Vector Wellington Orchestra conducted by Michael Stewart. Soloists: Anna Leese (soprano), Kate Spence (alto), David Hamilton (tenor), Jared Holt (bass)
Wellington Town Hall
Saturday 18 December 2010, 7.30pm
The Tudor Consort’s courage in hiring the Town Hall for its Christmas Oratorio was rewarded by a good audience and by an absolutely wonderful performance. Anna Leese was no doubt an important draw-card, but in the event the success was achieved through the other three principals, by the choir itself, and very importantly, the superb baroque ensemble drawn from the Vector Wellington Orchestra.
Here was just one occasion when this fine orchestra provided an indispensable contribution to a performance. Bach calls for only about 23 players, but these were players who created an accompaniment of such finesse and sensitivity to the Baroque style that I can hardly imagine better in this country, or any other. As he had shown in his work with the choir, Michael Stewart proved an equally gifted orchestral director, as diverting to watch as to hear.
Most striking perhaps were the three trumpets, led conspicuously by section principal Barrett Hocking who carried most of the high-lying embellishments. No less beautiful were the four oboes two of which dealt with Bach’s writing for two deep-voiced oboe da caccia; or the accompaniment by solo violin and cello (Matthew Ross and Jane Young) of Kate Spence’s aria in Part III, ‘Schliess mein Herz’, and elsewhere. The only outside players were NZSO timpanist Larry Reese and bass player Alexander Gunchenko whose playing made consummate contributions too.
On its own in the Sinfonia of Part II, all the many strengths of the orchestra, such as beautiful string playing, became most conspicuous.
Soprano Anna Leese had, naturally, attracted most of the pre-concert publicity; unfortunately, Bach had misread his brief and offered her fewer solo opportunities than she merited. Nevertheless, her singing stopped the audience in its tracks, as it were, in her first, short offering in Part II, as the Angel, in duet with David Hamilton’s Evangelist: ‘Und der Engel sprach zu ihnen’; again, in Part III, she sang in duet with Jared Holt, ‘Herr, dein Mitleid, dein Erbarmen’, somewhat oddly, many metres apart, at the front of the stage: her voice penetrating, dramatic, agile, and nicely blending with Holt’s.
After a most delightful trio between soprano, alto and tenor, Leese got her big solo in Part VI, ‘Nur ein Wink von seinen Händen’, which only convention prevented the audience from shouting to the rafters: such variety of colour and articulation, such insight into the meaning of every word.
(It was interesting to look back at the Mobil Song Quest in 2002: Anna Leese, winner; Kate Spence, second; Ana James, third. The other three finalists were ‘whatever-happened-to’ names: Majka Kaiser, Andrew Conley and the recently returned from Europe and still singing-in-opera, Anna Pierard.)
David Hamilton deserved equal billing for his prolonged work as the Evangelist, rich with highly accomplished ornaments, and interpretation of the words in the most lively and sympathetic way. His voice hardly tired, it remained clear and accurate throughout, still singing like a thirty-year-old! For example, he made an impressive and arresting job of the melodious aria in Part II, ‘Frohe Hirten, eilt, ach, eilet’, adorned with ornaments and charmingly accompanied by flutes.
After her runner-up prize in the 2002 Mobil Song Quest and studies in London Kate Spence had only a short professional career in opera; but she often sings on the concert platform. One has to lament that support of opera in New Zealand has been so poor that a singer of such talent has not been able to stay in the profession. Her voice, a lovely mezzo with characteristic warmth at the bottom, is full of character, projects strongly, a voice that bloomed in the Town Hall acoustic. I commented on her above; and she had several other notable recitatives, arias and ensembles, such as the long aria ’Schlafe mein Liebster’ in Part II, this time attractively accompanied by oboes and flutes.
Jared Holt won the Mobil in 2000 and had a promising career that even reached the stage of Covent Garden; like several other singers, he had equipped himself with the safety-net of a law degree and that is now offering him more security. A strong opera company that can employ a regular ensemble of principals would have kept him away from law. His first substantial aria in Part I, ‘Grosser Herr, o starker König’, was a fine display of his sturdy competence, vigorous and splendidly dramatic: its accompaniment by a brilliant trumpet did his performance no harm at all. And I noted above, his very striking duet with Leese.
The oratorio obviously offers great music for the choir itself, with its wealth of lively, often triple-time numbers, and chorales, many of which have a familiar ring since so much of the music was recycled from earlier pieces. Not unusually, the choir’s energy and confidence built through the performance. Perhaps a shade more ecstasy might have driven the opening chorus, ‘Jauchzet, froh locket’, yet it was still among the most polished and exuberant performances I have heard; the subsequent chorales, calmer, enabled the choir to gather its strength for some powerful singing, till a chorus such as the opening of Part V, ‘Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen’ was a thrilling exhibition of ebullience and vocal athleticism.
Foremost in the thoughts of audience members as they listened to the orchestra’s polished and exuberant playing, must have been the present threat to the orchestra whose existence in at least its existing size and quality is vital to Wellington’s musical life. The behaviour of Creative New Zealand which would deny this orchestra even the modest level of assistance it now receives, seems driven by either vindictiveness, some obscure, adolescent, PC-ridden agenda, or plain ignorance: perhaps all three.
I can only hope that those who make boasts about the cultural capital will be able to bring to their senses those who have such destructive impulses.