A very Big Sing, very entertaining

Gala Concert: The Big Sing, New Zealand Choral Federation Secondary Schools’ Choir Festivals National Finale

Wellington Town Hall

Wednesday, 24 August 2011, 6.30pm

To hear 700 secondary school students from all around New Zealand singing together is thrilling indeed, as they did at the conclusion of this three-hour concert. The Wellington Town Hall has hosted much music through its life, but hearing this amount of excellent singing in such a good acoustic is ‘something else’, as is seeing and hearing three boys’ school choirs turning on impromptu haka at the end, and the screaming, enthusiastic response!

Twenty-two school choirs were finalists from the regional choral festivals (Wellington’s was held in June) came together for several days of singing, culminating in this Gala Concert, in which each school sang one of the pieces they had performed earlier in the week. The selection was made by the judges and not, as formerly, by the choirs themselves. This was probably the reason for a better balanced concert than is sometimes the case.

The Big Sing National Finale was to have been held in Christchurch this year; sadly, because of February’s earthquake this has not been possible. This meant a late start for the Wellington Committee to organise things, but nonetheless, all was done very competently.

With a knowledgeable and clear compère in Christine Argyle of Radio New Zealand Concert, herself a choir director, and super-efficient stage crew, it was hard to imagine things being run any better. An innovation this year was the showing on two big screens of videos taken around Wellington during the days of the festival. School choirs, when not required to be at the Town Hall, made up ‘flash mobs’ at various venues such as the Railway Station and the Majestic tower, where bemused locals perforce looked on, as items were performed by the impeccably uniformed students, who then disappeared. A surprise appearance on screen was “the stage crew choir”, who sang very competently from their work-place, viz. the stage of the Town Hall.

The screens showed images from in-house cameras throughout the evening, meaning all sections of the audience could easily see the compère, the choirs, soloists and sections and individuals in the choirs. Shown also on screen were the names of the choirs, the schools’ names, and the names of their conductors. It all worked very smoothly.

Some interesting statistics: 8,500 secondary school students took part in the regional festivals; 700 students were at the Finale here in Wellington; 14 choirs were from North Island schools and 9 from the South Island (on a population basis that means that, proportionately, more South Island schools were successful in choral music; only one Wellington choir was in the final this year: Teal Voices, from Wellington Girls’ College. Another, the Queen Margaret Chorale, sang the winning composition, written by a Queen Margaret College student.

Of course, not every school chooses to enter every year; there is much work involved in preparation (every piece is sung from memory), and expense, particularly in getting choirs to the National Finale venues.

All the choirs had been trained well in how to stand, walk on and off stage, and to arrange themselves in particular formations, with great decorum. Even though there were applause, cheering, and standing ovations frequently throughout the concert, quiet and attention reigned while choirs were performing. Coming on and off stage was done quickly and neatly by all the choirs, which, along with the rapid work from the stage crew, kept the long programme moving.

First up was the Craighead Chorale, from Craighead Diocesan Girls’ School in Timaru, under Vicki McLeod. They were accompanied by piano and violin (not student performers) in the Irish folksong “The Stuttering Lovers”. The choir employed appropriate movement in their performance, which added to the humour. The choir sang with attractive tone, and gradation of dynamics. The 17 singers sustained their tone well to the very end of the piece.

Next up was Southern Hesperides from Otago Girls’ High School, singing Mendelssohn’s “Lift thine Eyes” from the oratorio Elijah. This beautiful three-part choral piece from the big choir, featured lovely tone and superb use of the language. The singers maintained a truly legato line by not overemphasising the consonants. What was remarkable was that they sang without conductor; Karen Knudson simply gave them the notes on the piano, then conducted the first few beats, and sat down while they sang unaccompanied.

Some of the girls remained on stage, because the next choir was Barock, a combined ensemble including Otago Boys’ High School students as well. Again, Karen Knudson did not conduct. The notes were given, a boy in the front of the widely spaced students gave the first few beats (facing the audience) and off they went, in “All my Trials”, arranged by Norman Luboff. Such precision, especially in such a slow piece, and with rallentando at the end, was astonishing with no conductor in front. As with the girls choir, all vowels were made exactly the same way by each choir member, giving great clarity to the singing. I found listening to the singing of this piece a moving experience. The only thing that detracted from this choir’s (and the next’s) performance was that the boys looked untidy compare with all the other choirs. They would have improved their appearance if the blazers had been buttoned.

Most of the boys remained, since the next choir was their school’s. They sang with piano, again without conductor, “The Masochism Tango” by Tom Lehrer, arranged by Karen Knudson. As well as singing, there was choreography involving changed configurations, the choir now facing one way in their wedge-shaped formation, now the other. Acting came into it too, and dancing of the tango. Use of the falsetto voice to represent women and other details made the presentation very funny – but the singing was good, too. However, it may have been a target of Paul Holley’s comment in his concluding remarks that the choirs needed to ensure that the movement does not detract from the music being sung.

For the first time, a combined choir from Nelson College and Nelson College for Girls, Stella Collegians, performed in the Big Sing – as a guest choir (i.e. not a finalist). Five boys and nine girls sang Caccini’s “Ave Maria” under their conductor Kathryn Hutt, with flute and piano accompaniment. The Latin pronunciation left something to be desired, but the harmony was fine, and the flute lovely. However, tone and dynamics became boring because they were unvaried.

A traditional Yiddish song was performed by Euphony, the mixed choir of Kristen School in Auckland. They had good tone and volume, and words were enunciated well (as far as I could tell, not being a speaker of Yiddish). The parts were well executed, despite being quite complex in places. Under their conductor Nick Richardson, the tempo was well controlled, and co-ordinated movement was part of the performance.

Bulgarian composer Peter Lyondev’s name was not familiar to me. Rangi Ruru’s Resolutions choir sang “Kafal Sviri” by him. Their conductor Helen Charlton had the choir singing with quite a different technique from that normally associated with Western music. They sang with a rather nasal head-voice, which presumably was appropriate for this music. This was rather daring in a competition where other choirs would be aiming for a sound produced so differently.

Aorere College is renowned at every Big Sing for the robust, well-produced tone of its singers, and the subtleties of dynamics they bring to their task. The Sweet Sixteen from that school (actually numbering about 28 singers) sang “Te Atua” by Awhina Waimotu. This piece was last year’s composition competition winner. It featured beautiful, gentle singing from this mixed choir under its conductor, Douglas Nyce. The tone was exemplary, and the voices blended well.

The school male choir was up next: Front Row. In their football jerseys, with numbers on the backs, they made a great sight. And a great sound, too. Directed by Pene and William Pati, they performed “Purea Nei”, a traditional Maori song arranged by William Pati, accompanied by guitar. This was a big sound, and movement was incorporated in their performance, which ended with a haka – conductor and all. The choir received a standing ovation from all the other teenagers in the hall, as the haka continued while they walked off.

Another guest choir was Bella, from Freyberg High School in Palmerston North, conducted by Kristen Clark. They sang “Atapo” by Josie Burdon. This choir comprised all girls, who sang unaccompanied. They made a pleasing sound, and maintained good control of dynamics. They began with a very well performed solo karanga, which continued while the choir sang in harmony – most effective.

King’s College, Auckland, was represented by a new choir, “King’s Voices”, who sang Fats Waller’s well-known “Ain’t Misbehavin’”. Nicholas Forbes conducted the mixed choir in a very classy performance. No movement was involved; the choir got its message over with appropriate language and pronunciation. The blend of voices was excellent.

They were followed by Petra Voce, another guest choir, this time from St. Peter’s School in Cambridge. It was their first time at the Big Sing – a contrast with some of the choirs heard at the beginning of the evening, who had been attending since 1995 or 1996. Their conductor Julia McIntyre led them in a close harmony item, “Cornerstone” by Kirckner, with piano accompaniment. The choir consisted of both boys and girls – and a boy soloist contributed his falsetto; there was a girl soloist also. The choir sang very effectively, making a great sound.

Last on in the first half of the concert was Bellissimo from a relatively new school, which was new to the contest: Whangaparaoa College. They chose the ever-popular American folksong “Shenandoah” in a telling arrangement by James Erb. Philippa Jones, their director, obtained a very accomplished performance. The choir (which seemed to specialise in tall males and short females) looked smart with their green sashes and ties. Excellent vocal production and tone were features in this unaccompanied piece, which made a fine effect.

Following interval, SOS from Rangitoto College, a girls’ choir conducted by David Squire, sang another popular number, “All the things you are” by Jerome Kern. For some of us this song always evokes Peter Sellers’ deliberately pathetic version! For a large choir, SOS did not have a big sound. Nevertheless, they sang this close harmony arrangement very competently.

Middleton Grange School’s combined girls and boys choir Crescendos was a guest choir. Under their conductor Phillipa Chirnside, they sang “Africa”, with the accompaniment of drums and piano, and actions. In what should be a very rousing song, their tone was often weak, or poorly supported.

Marlborough Girls’ College was represented by a large choir, Bella Voce – veterans of many Big Sings. They sang a Venezuelan song, “Mata Del Anima Sola” by Antonio Estevez. This was a thoroughly involving performance under conductor Robin Randall, and a very accomplished solo singer, soprano Olivia Sheat, contributed largely, along with the lovely tone from the choir.

Saint Cecilia Singers from Auckland Diocesan School for Girls has been a frequent participant, too. Their conductor David Gordon’s “There is no rose of such virtue” was a fine choice. The choir continued singing as the members walked off stage, and then stopped to complete the item, with just one singer still on stage – an effective ploy.

Macleans College Choir under the renowned choral director Terence Maskell sang Schumann’s “Es ist verraten”, accompanied on the piano. While the German sounded good to start with, a German speaker sitting near me said that after a while she could no longer understand the words; however, English language songs can suffer the same fate. This was a big mixed choir, and the clarity of the lovely Schumann music was certainly there, plus good rhythm and dynamics.

Burnside High School is noted for its music courses and high calibre of performance. The choir Bel Canto continued this tradition, with a mature sound from this girls-only group, singing New Zealander Tecwyn Evans’s “The Lamb”. Director Sue Densem sang the opening notes, and then the singing was unaccompanied. There were difficult harmonies in this piece, but a superb performance resulted. I particularly liked the great use of the words in phrasing the music.

Teal Voices, an 18-voice choir from Wellington Girls’ College, sang Debussy’s “Noel des enfants qui n’ont plus de maisons” with Michael Fletcher conducting. The French language pronunciation sounded competent; the singing featured a great dynamic range, including beautifully controlled soft singing.

Westlake Girls’ and Boys’ High Schools combined choir Choralation exhibited their expertise by singing an Arvo Pärt piece, “Bogoroditse Dyevo”. This was quite a short piece, sung with clarity in Russian – a very fine performance under conductor Rowan Johnston.

Finally, in complete contrast to the static previous item, Westlake Boys’ Voicemale, conducted by David Squire, incorporated much action and even props into their singing of “Toyota”, an item from David Hamilton’s musical Crumpy. The boys simulated a vehicle, crouching or kneeling, with one boy holding a steering wheel, and others at appropriate positions whirling umbrellas to simulate wheels. It was all very funny, but there was good singing, too.

Queen Margaret Chorale conducted by Louise Logan, sang “Freedom”, whose composer, Simone Chivers, received the SOUNZ Composition Award. This was a large choir, and they sang well, but this was a slow, dull piece, without the appealing qualities of last year’s winner that was sung by The Sweet Sixteen in this concert. More care was needed in the word-setting; the emphasis of the word ‘freedom’ should not come on ‘-dom’, as it repeatedly did in this piece.

I haven’t mentioned accompanists, all of whom played competently and sympathetically.

After a short speech by Grant Hutchinson, the Chief Executive of the New Zealand Choral Federation, and remarks from one of the judges, the awards were presented.

The judges, Dr Karen Grylls (New Zealand Voices and New Zealand Youth Choir music director), Andrew Withington (New Zealand Secondary Students’ Choir director) and Australian choir director Paul Holley, judged on all the performances they heard from the choirs during the several days, not on those heard on Wednesday night.

Did Southern Hesperides and their joint choir with Otago Boys’ High School Choir overstep the time limit? That some choirs had done so was mentioned by Paul Holley in his judges’ (yes, plural) remarks. Otherwise I cannot account for neither Southern Hesperides nor Barock achieving gold, or at least silver awards. Others I spoke to after the concert were similarly surprised. Teal Voices I also thought worthy of a higher award. Paul Holley, from Brisbane, said he admired the quality and variety of what he heard. He urged choirs to ensure that movement does not detract from the music being sung. He described Knockout (KO): know and own what you are singing. He congratulated all the soloists, the choral conductors, and the choirs.

Here are the results:

Bronze awards: The Sweet Sixteen, Aorere Collete

Southern Hesperides, Otago Girls’ High School

Saint Cecilia Singers, Auckland Diocesan School for Girls

Otago Boys’ High School Choir

Front Row, Aorere College

Silver awards: Bella Voce, Marlborough Girls’ College

Belissimo, Whangaparaoa College

Euphony, Kristen School

King’s Voices, King’s College

Maclean’s College Choir

Resolutions, Rangi Ruru Girls’ School

SOS, Rangitoto College

Teal Voices, Wellington Girls’ College

Voicemale, Westlake Boys’ High School

Gold awards: Craighead Dicocesan Girls’ School

Choralation, Westlake Girls’ and Boys’ High Schools

Bel Canto, Burnside High School

Platinum award: Choralation, Westlake Girls’ and Boys’ High Schools

SOUNZ composition award: Simone Chivers

Auahi Kore performance award for the choir giving best total performance of a work using Maori text: The Sweet Sixteen, Aorere College

Hutt City trophy: Best performance of a New Zealand composition: Bel Canto, Burnside Hugh School

Youth Ambassadors’ award (“outstanding engagement with all elements of the Finale”): Belissimo, Whangaparaoa College