Top German Youth Choir on tour – revelations

Youth choir concert: Christophorus-Kantorei from Germany

Tawa College Hall

7.30pm, Monday, 20 June 2011

Christophorus Kantorei is a choir from a high school in Altensteig in the Black Forest in Germany. The choir has become renowned for its excellence, and the singers tour overseas every four years. Our good fortune was that at present two of the 60 singers are from Tawa, while their father, who organised this tour, works in Germany.

The conductor, Michael Nonnenmann, is a tall, genial gentleman, who had the singers at the tips of his fingers. With the choir and their conductor (all of whom are billeted locally while on their New Zealand tour) were their voice trainer, a tenor, and his wife, a pianist and organist. As well as these tours to other countries, the choir sings many times each year in Germany, has won many international competitions and made numerous CDs.

The choir has a large and very varied repertoire; out of an extensive list of works in the printed programme, in which the German items were translated into English, a selection of 19 was performed, all a capella.

First up was William Byrd’s ‘Sing Joyfully’, one of quite a number of items in English. (As well as German and English, we heard items in Latin, French and Maori). Immediately one was struck by the very clear but full-toned sound, the immaculate rhythm and how all the singers started and stopped absolutely together. The voices were well produced and resonant.

After a short item in Latin by Viadana, we heard a very effective and dramatic piece by Rudolf Mauersberger, written after the destruction of the beautiful city of Dresden toward the end of World War II. The words were taken from the Old Testament book of Jeremiah, but were utterly apt for the desolation left by the bombers. The choir began with an appropriate covered, mournful tone. The singing was very precise, and there were some very fine solo verses.

‘Laudate Omnes Gentes’ by Jacques Berthier, who died in 1994, followed. For this piece the singers were spread round the perimeter of the hall. A solo soprano started and others joined in, part by part, from memory. Its simple repeated phrases led my companion to surmise that it was a Taizé chant, and Wikipedia confirms that the composer wrote much for the Taizé community. It was followed by a very gentle ‘Notre Père’ by Maurice Duruflé, also sung from memory. The singing was well forward in the mouth, and the balance, as elsewhere, was splendid. The piece featured delicate pianissimo singing of great beauty.

I did not know the name Z. Randall Stroope, but he is a contemporary American composer, and ‘The Conversion of Saul’ is a very recent work. The choir rearranged itself for this song, and for many of the items; sometimes this was done in less than a smooth, well-organised way. The piece’s words described Saul’s mission before his conversion “Murder, harass, bind into chains”; these were set in most dramatic fashion, at first in what sounded to me like mediaeval Latin (reminiscent of language in Orff’s Carmina Burana.) There was plenty of fortissimo and emphasis.

This was followed by a ‘Kyrie’ not found in the printed programme. It was apparently by a modern composer, and demonstrated well the choir’s great control of dynamics, and its exquisite tone. Here, the wonderful blend of the choir was especially on show, and the strong movement between chords, which included many discords. The unanimity of sound was achieved by all vowels being absolutely matched; never tight, but open sounds. This was not through unnecessarily wide open mouths, but by the careful shaping of sounds and the use of resonance.

Not every choir sings so well when singing loudly, but here it was excellent, as in the next item ‘Daemon Irrepit Callidus’ by György Orbàn, a Romanian contemporary composer. This started with staccato singing, later alternating with legato. In the men’s solos I heard almost the only slight lapse from good tone and intonation. Generally, the excellence, liveliness, and total commitment of the choir members were exemplary, given that this was their eighth concert around the North Island in nine days. There will be one on each of the next three days; one day off, then three more!

One of the longer pieces came next: ‘Warning to the Rich’ by Thomas Jennefelt, a Swedish composer, written in 1977. This was in English, but it was very useful to have the words printed. It employed sprechgesang (ironic to use a German term for a performance in English by a German choir!) or speak-singing. At the beginning, it was in whispered tones, becoming louder from the men, while the women changed to an Aw sound from their earlier humming. In the second verse all sang the words; later there was sprechgesang again. This was not the only item to make great technical demands, but the singers knew the work very well, and most glanced at their printed scores only occasionally. It was an extremely telling and thrilling work, based on verses from the New Testament: James chapters 4 and 5.

There was no interval as such (we could have done with time to stretch the legs, being seated on school plastic chairs), although the choir had a break. During it, the choir’s voice tutor, Eberhard Schuler-Meybier, a tenor, sang lieder, to his wife Susanne’s excellent piano accompaniment. It was wonderful to hear the opening few songs and a later one from Robert Schumann’s cycle Dichterliebe. Unfortunately we seldom hear lieder these days. I’m told it’s true of big cities like London also, not just Wellington. These songs were preceded by a German setting of ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’, and followed by Schubert’s famous ‘The Trout’. The tenor has a fine voice if not the smoothest tone, and communicated the songs well, singing the words sensitively. The higher notes in ‘The Trout’ were a little strident at fortissimo.

Shorter items followed in the second half, which began with Ward Swingle’s exciting arrangement of ‘Pastime with good company’. One young man imitated a shawm while all processed in. All items in this half were sung without the scores.

Next was ‘Il est bel et bon’, a delightful sixteenth century piece which incorporated some ‘choralography’ (choreography for singers; a term I learnt at The Big Sing ten days ago), as did many of the items in this half.

Two German folksongs were similarly treated to actions, and were sung in very lively and interesting arrangements. ‘Als wir jüngst in Regensburg waren’ was very rhythmic, with tricky timing. The young woman from the choir who announced the items gave us the ‘low-down’ on the story of this song, which involved quite a lot of acting on the part of the choir.

Mike Brewer is a British choral conductor who has visited New Zealand many times; his intriguing arrangement of ‘Pokarekare ana’, was a pleasure to hear. Even if all the vowels were not quite Maori, the choir members all made them the same way, resulting in their usual purity of tone.

We then visited the USA for Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’, which was sung in an authentic American accent and manner, solo and all.

Now for some humour: ‘Short People’ by Randy Newman, arranged by English choral conductor and former King’s Singer Simon Carrington (in New Zealand eighteen months ago for ‘Sing Aotearoa’ in Rotorua) was very slick, incorporating two male soloists, and entered into fully by choir and audience, thanks to very clear words.

The concert ended with some magic: ‘The magic paint brush’ by contemporary Danish composer John Høybye, a brilliant, intricate piece, superbly sung, incorporating a lot of clapping, slapping and stamping, and ‘Magic Song’ by Ray Murray Schafer (a prolific Canadian composer, born in 1933), which incorporated a lot of different techniques, both vocal and physical.

Finally, a hotly demanded encore: Moses Hogan’s quite complex arrangement of ‘Joshua fit the battle of Jericho’ sung with huge energy and style.

It is a pity there was not a larger audience to hear this superb concert, especially that there were not many more students from Tawa College, whose choirs did so well very recently in the Wellington Region Big Sing. They could have been inspired and educated by hearing such accomplished choral singers as the members of Christophorus-Kantorei.

If you are in Wellington and read this in time, do go to St. Peter’s Church on Willis Street Tuesday, 21 June at 7.30pm, when the choir will perform again. Or hear the choir in Nelson, 22 June; Blenheim, 23 June; Dunedin, 25 June; Timaru, 26 June; Christchurch, 27 June.

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