Imaginative New Zealand choral music from innovative Tudor Consort

Renaissance Influences IV: Made in New Zealand

Music by Gillian Whitehead, David Farquhar, Ross Harris, Douglas Mews sen., John Ritchie, Anna Griffiths and Jack Body

The Tudor Consort, directed by Michael Stewart

St. Mary of the Angels Church

Saturday, 8 October 2011, 3pm

It was surprising to find the Tudor Consort performing works by New Zealand composers, and even more surprising to read the title of the concert.   However, there was no question, when one heard the works, about the influence of the renaissance composers on these down-under writers.  There was even less question, but rather joyful astonishment, at the skill of these works, and of The Tudor Consort in presenting them.  It was innovative to devise such a programme as this, and to commission two new works – the Ross Harris and Jack Body pieces.

The programme opened with the Kyrie from Missa Brevis by Gillian Whitehead.  The mass was performed section by section throughout the programme, interspersed with other items, as it would be in a church service, though of course there it would be interspersed through the liturgy.  Initially, this seemed odd, not to carry on the Gloria from the Kyrie, in a concert performance.  However, I think it worked well, giving each movement of the mass a freshness and pointing up the individual qualities of its parts better than would be the case if it had been sung through as a whole.

It was a most accomplished work for a composer who was still a student at university at the time of composition.  As the programme note said, “The unmistakeable influence of 16th century polyphony is clear from the outset…’   The full import of this influence grew as the various movements were presented.  But the skilled writing was apparent straight away.   There was much use of clashes of the interval of a second, and splendid dynamic contrasts.

The choir exhibited great attack and superb clarity of words.  In the Sanctus it was noticeable that some singers paid scant attention to the conductor, but the wonderful rise and fall of both pitch and contrapuntal complexity were well conveyed in spite of that.  This movement had a most rapturous ending.

Early on, the soprano tone was rather metallic at times, and one voice in that section had a tendency to dominate.  Nevertheless, in the main the choir’s balance was impeccable.  Only briefly at the end of the Agnus Dei was the choir not quite together.

Following the Kyrie, we heard Winter wakeneth all my care by David Farquhar, a setting of an anonymous 14th century English text.  This was a quite lovely setting of glorious words.  There was an interesting independence of parts, which gave frequent delicious clashes and juxtapositions.  The performance was magical.

The commissioned work from Ross Harris, Vobiscum in aeternum, was based on the well-known Tudor motet If ye love me.   Using the Latin version of the same words, this piece began with a gorgeous soft introduction.  The lattice-work of long-held notes in each part wove a beautiful, reverential solemnity in the fine acoustic of St. Mary of the Angels church.

The singing was beautiful blended, apart from one soprano who still dominated, from where I was sitting.  Otherwise, it exhibited the excellent attribute of carrying the sound and the words seamlessly forward, something the Australian judge of the recent Big Sing Secondary Students’ Choral Festival in Wellington commented on being absent from some of the otherwise excellent choirs that he heard perform.

Ross Harris could hardly have wished for a finer première performance.  The high standard continued in the adjoined Tallis original ‘If ye love me’ in English, that concluded the piece.  The brief for this and for the Jack Body commission was to take an ancient piece of music as a starting point.  I must admit to a sneaking feeling that it was a little pretentious that one composer used Latin instead of the English of St. John’s gospel in the King James version of the Bible, as used by Tallis, and the other to use Hebrew instead of the well-known and loved words, from the same version, for  Psalm 137 (or indeed the Russian of the introductory chant; see below).  However, this may have been the composers’ way of introducing an individuality that separated their compositions from the originals on which they were based – and it would be pretty difficult for a New Zealand composer to write for the Russian language.

Michael Stewart, in speaking to the audience, acknowledged that the next item, The Love Song of Rangipouri by Douglas Mews, did not have a Renaissance connection, but disarmingly stated that he liked it so much that he included it.  This work featured a soloist, Ken Ryan (baritone).  His facility with the Maori language and with the micro-tonality of the chant was astonishing, and his singing was very fine.   Based on a Maori chant recorded at Makara, the words are poetic and mystical; some of the lines were repeated in English.  I learned recently that even in the Far North, the pronunciation of ‘wh’ in Maori as ‘f’ was not traditional, if the early missionary Henry Williams is to be believed.  He wrote regretting the increasing tendency in his time for the ‘f’ sound to be used.

This was a difficult piece, but the choir brought it off, despite a few entries not being absolutely together.

The women of the choir sang two songs from John Ritchie’s Canary Wine song cycle: “I – Queene and Huntress”, and “III – Make Room for the bouncing Belly”.  The texts were by Ben Jonson.  I found it humorous to contemplate what now would be considered doggerel being written by the great Elizabethan playwright and poet: “Room! Room! Make room for the bouncing Belly, First father of sauce and deviser of jelly”.   There were unfamiliar words in the text, such as boulter and bavin, but thanks to a friendly pew-sharer and his I-pod, I now know that they all apply to domestic implements.

The music, good-humoured as is usual with Ritchie père, was utterly appropriate to the words.  It was good to have a lighter item in the middle of the programme; the singing was sparklingly accurate.

Anna Griffiths is a music graduate of the University of Auckland, and sings in The Tudor Consort.  She has won prizes for her compositions, and has had this and another choral piece performed overseas by the New Zealand Youth Choir.  Naseby is a setting of a poem by James K. Baxter, and depicts the Otago township.  I enjoyed the alliteration of the poem’s second-last line: “Then the dark peaks will hold their peace…”.  This was a very skilled and sympathetic setting, idiomatic with regard to the words.  The ending chord was not resolved, thus carrying through the music the timeless feel of the words.

Now for something completely different…  The men sang the Russian chant from the 17th century “Bogospod’i yavisya” (God, Lord, show yourself to us) which Jack Body used as the basis for his piece for full choir.  The men had a robust sound and relished the words, but perhaps could not obtain quite the resonant depth of tone of a Russian choir.

Psalm 137 was sung in Hebrew, influenced by the chant, but not in a Jewish style.  It began with three male voice parts interweaving “answered by a keening figure from the women” as the programme note stated.  It reached a climax at the end with the words “Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock” (speaking of the daughter of Babylon) – words not usually incorporated in choral settings of the psalm.

The piece was very quiet in parts, yet there was plenty of volume when required.  Intonation was unassailable.  The whole was most effective.

We are fortunate to have composers of this level writing imaginative, highly skilled and effective music for choirs.  New Zealand composers certainly know how to write choral music!  The strong choral tradition in this country no doubt lends strong inspiration, and the fact that there are choirs capable of singing the complex, accomplished music we heard at this concert.

Some of the pieces were written for more than four parts, adding to the achievement for a choir of only 20 voices.  It was certainly different for this choir to perform New Zealand works; works that were difficult and very interesting, including a variety of languages.  They made for a most worthwhile concert.

All the works were well worth hearing, and it is to be hoped that other choirs will take them up – they should be heard again.  One or two only (the Ritchie and the Mews) I thought I had heard before.

The level of expert performance by this choir is all the more amazing considering the comparative frequency of its concerts.  This was only an hour-long concert, but it was a solid programme, and there was a great deal of concentrated and expert singing.   Bravo!

One thought on “Imaginative New Zealand choral music from innovative Tudor Consort

  1. Ross Harris says:

    My use of the Latin was to complement the relative ambiguity of my setting (barely stable tonality and entangled contrapuntal textures) and to contrast that with the simple beauty of the Tallis and the English words.

    Ross Harris

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