Free Concert to mark the Summer School of Choral Conducting

Choral pieces by American composers, Rossini, Brahms, Lauridsen, Helen Fisher, David Griffiths, David Childs and Anthony Ritchie

Choir of the Summer School in Choral Conducting conducted by three visiting tutors from USA with accompanist, Bronwyn Brown (Australia); Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir conducted by Karen Grylls, with Horomona Horo (taonga puoro)

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Hill Street

Sunday, 2 January 2011

A free concert is always welcome, and Sacred Heart was nearly full for a short choral concert.

The opening bracket of songs were all by American composers, and conducted by tutors at the Summer School of Choral Conducting, the choir being made up of those being tutored: choral conductors and fledgling conductors.

Jo-Michael Scheibe conducted ‘I carry your heart with me’ by David Dickau, with words by e.e. cummings. He explained that there had only been three hours for rehearsal; whether this was for this piece alone or for all three pieces was not made clear. After a tentative start, this was a good performance, though not electrifying, despite one of the headings in the printed programme reading ‘International Summer School in Choral Conduction Inc.’ The choir of over 40 was well balanced, and featured splendid basses. This item was accompanied on the piano by Bronwyn Brown.

The second choral song was a setting of Psalm 121: ‘I will lift up mine eyes’, by Nicholas Mekaig. It was conducted by Christopher Kiver, an Englishman resident in the United States. Again, the opening was a little tentative, and at one point the soprano sound turned into something of a shriek, but there was good unaccompanied singing, and a lovely balanced ending.

These were two beautiful settings, which would be worth local choirs taking up.

The last of the three was accompanied, and opened with excellent unison singing. Most of the choir sang from memory in this item: ‘True Light’ by Keith Hampton, conducted by Mary Hopper. This was a gospel-style number, with the choir eventually swaying to the beat.

The choir made a good fist of unfamiliar music. The conductors were clear in their beats and other gestures, without flamboyance, and produced good results from a group not accustomed to singing together, performing new music.

After a short break while the choirs changed places, Horomona Horo slowly led Voices New Zealand into the Cathedral, as he played taonga puoro. He switched instruments from the conch shell trumpet-like instrument to a long wooden, very loud wind instrument when the choir reached the front of the church.

For a complete contrast, the choir began with Rossini’s ‘Cantemus’, an attractive piece reminiscent of compositions of a couple of centuries earlier. Immediately we were in the presence of a very impressive choir. These are quality voices, singing very effectively with unified tone, excellent enunciation, feeling for the music, which moves forward all the time. Legato singing was graceful, and dynamics superbly graded.

Brahms’s ‘Nachtwache’ and ‘Verlorene Jugend’ from Funf Gesänge followed. Fullness of beautiful tone is what distinguishes this choir and its remarkable conductor, as well as accuracy and attention to detail. For example, all the vowels are made in the same way by every one of the 24 choir members. There is plenty of volume when required. In this piece there were one or two harsh high soprano notes, but this was an isolated occurrence. I am sure Brahms would have been thrilled with this performance.

The noted American choral composer Morten Lauridsen wrote Six Fire Songs. Three were performed, and proved to be very effective music. They were sung with force and clarity. There were difficult harmonies, all executed to perfection.

‘Pounamu’ by Helen Fisher was the only one of the Voices items accompanied: Horomona Horo played the koauau beautifully during this quite lengthy piece. The instrument contributed to a ghostly feeling, as did the long-held notes from the choir. The interval of a second occurred frequently; this was difficult music, and not something that many other choirs could readily tackle.

David Griffiths set poems of Charles Brasch in Five Landscapes, of which we heard two: ‘Oreti Beach’ and ‘On Mount Iron’. This was stark, but interesting music, and the second song particularly featured delicious choral writing. However, from where I sat it was not possible to hear most of the words.

A lovely ‘Salve Regina’ setting by David Childs was exquisitely sung. There were gorgeous harmonies, and the basses particularly were outstanding. A few fuzzy entries did not really detract from a fine rendering.

Last of all was a piece written especially for Voices New Zealand: ‘Olinda’ by Anthony Ritchie. Here, the words were clearer – it may be that the writing of a former New Zealand Youth Choir member (and present Board member of Choirs Aotearoa) lent itself to greater clarity. It was a cheerful item with which to end a memorable concert.

Christine Argyle introduced the Voices items, each of which was received with sustained and hearty applause from the audience.

The four New Zealand compositions were all more adventurous in style than the American ones. This is not to put down the latter – they were all most effective choral pieces, and certainly not without tricky harmonies and rhythms. We were treated to a programme of demanding music, magnificently sung.

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