More and more young choirs enter Wellington region Big Sing fest

Gala Concerts, The Big Sing, Wellington Region: New Zealand Choral Federation Secondary Schools’ Choral Festivals

Wellington Town Hall

Wednesday, 8 June 7pm and Thursday, 9 June 7pm

It is great to be able to report that an increasing number of secondary school students are singing in school choirs: the numbers taking part in The Big Sing increases every year.

This year I attended the Thursday night Gala Concert, which was the culmination of a day in which 15 secondary school choirs from 9 schools sang three items each. The previous night’s concert had featured 18 choirs from 10 schools.

Each choir has to sing a New Zealand or Pasifika piece, a piece from the Western music tradition, and an ‘own choice’ item, which is often, but not always, a more popular piece. They then choose one from these to sing in the Gala Concert that night. Sponsorship is provided by a number of Trusts, Creative New Zealand, and the Wellington City Council which, I understand, provides the venue free of charge throughout the two days and evenings.

The concerts are very well run, with a knowledgeable and clear compère and efficient stage management. A number of schools have several choirs, so their items are taken in sequence, to lessen the amount of moving around required. During the day-time sessions they are mixed up, which would make for greater interest for the audience, being mainly the members of other choirs.

First up was the Tawa College Dawn Chorus, now a very-long established choir, with over 100 voices. They featured lovely unison singing, and their item (‘Where e’re you go’ by Rosemary Russell, arranged by Glenys Chiaroni, both New Zealanders) had beautiful flute and piano accompaniment. As with all the choirs, singing was from memory. The sound was unforced, with admirably shaded dynamics.

That school’s second choir, the Early Birds, was conducted by a student conductor, Fuatino Malo-Siolo. Like some of the other conductors, both student and staff, she conducted without the score. Her style was very graceful. The singing of ‘We are one’ by Greg Gilpin, was accurate and tone was good; perhaps there was not enough attention to dynamics.

Yet another choir from Tawa, Twilight Tones of about 40 singers, was directed by Isaac Stone. He would be one of a number of conductors who had himself taken part in The Big Sing when a school student. This was exemplary singing, of Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Skylark’. The difficulties in this piece appeared non-existent to the choir.

A new participant in The Big Sing was the mixed choir from Samuel Marsden Whitby. Let’s hope its participation is continued in the future. In the meantime, they were not secure in singing ‘A Joyful Song’, and did not project enough sound, or joy.

The parent school, Samuel Marsden Collegiate, presented a huge choir, Ad Summa Chorale, who appropriately used movement in their rendering of ‘The rhythm of life’ by Cy Coleman. They truly had life. The articulation of music and words was clear despite the fast pace of the piece. A student accompanist and a harp played by Jennifer Newth added to the enjoyment of the item as did the lively conducting of student Anna McKinnon, a winner, with Fuatino Malo-Siolo of Tawa College, of a conductor’s certificate.

A second choir from the same school, the Senior Chamber Choir, numbering 24 singers, presented John Rutter’s arrangement of the traditional English carol ‘Tomorrow shall be my dancing day’. Good tone and great attention to dynamics were features, plus fine legato singing and superb projection.

The next choir, Nga manu tioriori o Kapiti, despite being from a co-ed school, comprised only female singers. With piano and two student violinists, they sang Elgar’s ‘The snow’. Although well sung, this piece was not projected enough, nor was there the range of dynamics the composer calls for.

Sacred Heart College’s Prima Voce Choir was a large choir, but did not have a particularly large sound. ‘You can’t stop the beat’ begins rather too low for a choir of teenage voices. Nevertheless, this was otherwise a good performance.

Porirua College’s mixed choir evoked considerable cheers from the mainly school-girl audience (why is it that boys’ choirs evoke such greetings, but the girl choirs less so?). Their singing of ‘Fa’amalolosi’ a traditional Samoan song, was spirited and effective. The student accompanist played without score. Rhythmic precision was matched with excellent sound. Movement was incorporated in the performance, and a male soloist (using microphone) was another element. However, the song itself was not musically interesting.

St. Mary’s College Schola proved to be a very skilled choir, in every department. ‘This Little Babe’ from Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols is quite a taxing piece, but very effective when well sung, as it was here.

Con Anima from St. Patrick’s College, Wellington is a very well trained choir with a lovely tone. They, too, had soloist as part of their performance – of an arrangement of the traditional Scottish ‘Loch Lomond’. However, the setting of his part was a little too low to carry very well. After a quiet couple of verses in which the pianissimo singing was very fine, the performance became literally con anima.

Chilton St. James School can boast that 20% of the school is involved in choral singing. Their large I See Red choir sang the opening chorus from Smetana’s opera The Bartered Bride, no doubt an item to be presented when they visit Prague before long. Impressively, they sang in the Czech language. This was a very accomplished performance.

The next choir from this school, Contempora, is a junior choir. It sang unaccompanied under a student conductor who also arranged the traditional Maori song ‘He honore’ that they sang most successfully.

The third Chilton choir, Seraphim, did attract large cheers, despite being all-female! The singers divided into two facing choirs, to sing a choral arrangement of Papagena and Papageno’s duet from Mozart’s The Magic Flute’. Sung in German, this was a very classy performance, almost faultless.

The final choir on show was the Wellington College Chorale, which performed in Gaelic ‘Dulaman’, an Irish folk-song about seaweed gatherers, set for choir by Michael McGlynn. Here was precision-plus, and a very effective performance of a song that was very demanding linguistically, if perhaps not so musically challenging.

A pause while award certificates and cups were brought onstage was filled by young organist Thomas Gaynor (a former Big Sing participant) playing Vierne’s Toccato in B flat minor, a grand piece of organ music employing many different sounds and a great demonstration of the player’s skill.

In awarding certificates and cups, adjudicator John Rosser from Auckland, was taking into consideration the performances the choirs gave during the day, not only the single-work evening items. Without going into a lot of detail, Rosser gave some pointers of what he was looking for, e.g. in the Western music pre-1930 selection he emphasised phrasing.

For the New Zealand music segment he awarded third place to Porirua College, second to Seraphim from Chilton St. James, and the cup to Tawa’s Twilight Tones. The Western music section saw awards to St. Patrick’s College Con Anima, Wellington College, and again the Twilight Tones.

For the Own Choice section, Twilight Tones and Wellington College were again winners. Rosser made a few remarks about the appropriate use of movement in the performances, for which he had a word ‘choralography’. He encourage the participants to carry on with singing after they leave school, and urged the conductors to take up courses soon to be offered by the Choral Federation.

Wellington Cathedral of St Paul had made an award for the best performance of an item using the Wellington Town Hall organ (to encourage its use), and this was won by the Wellington College Chorale. The item employing the organ was not performed on Thursday night. The commended conductors received certificates, as mentioned above.

Finally, there was a cup for the choir who appeared to carry out the Big Sing spirit best; it was won by Samuel Marsden Collegiate School.

The evening ended with a strongly sung National Anthem in Maori and English, with Thomas Gaynor accompanying on the organ.

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