Orpheus Choir shows versatility with Cole Porter

An evening with Cole Porter from the Orpheus Choir, conducted by Mark Dorrell with Sarah Lineham (mezzo) and Chris Crowe (baritone) and the players from the Vector Wellington Orchestra

Wellington Town Hall

Friday 7 October 7pm

It is brave for a symphonic choir to tackle popular music of any vein, and though it could be argued that the music of Cole Porter has closer links with classical music than, say, The Spice Girls or Michael Jackson, the idiom in which composers of ‘popular’ music normally work is pretty remote from Mozart.

This evening’s concert did not offer a very strong counter argument to that proposition.

Yet it’s only a couple of years since this choir staged a Cole Porter concert. It did occur to me that if they wanted to dip their toes into Broadway again, or more popular music, there are other composers, other angles on the genre.

On the other hand there was no denying that the character of popular music of any kind sounds a bit unspontaneous from a choir almost all of whose practice has been in the great choral works, and looks uncomfortable in a place normally used for conventional classical concerts. The music and words are typically more intimate, not to say risqué in the case of Porter, and was imagined for the theatre or cabaret.

Mark Dorrell has been acting musical director of the Orpheus Choir recently and becomes permanent director next year. in black jacket and shiny tight pants, he was clearly determined to make the best of the atmosphere of the hall, its lighting dimmed and red stage lighting, but with the choir in normal sober costumes and arrayed in oratorio-style rows on the choir steps, he had his work cut out.

But by ordinary standards, the choir was well rehearsed, sang accurately, with impressive ensemble; and the players of the Vector Wellington Orchestra showed a natural affinity with the style in their arrangements by Wayne Senior.

However, one of the things that struck me was the sameness of the arrangements. Wayne Senior is a talented arranger, and his instinct for the Broadway musical style is keen, but the same hand on all the songs led to a certain uniformity. An evening of varied songs from a span of more than three decades, could have been treated to more colourful and individual sonic dress, perhaps by devising replicas of arrangements by bands like Nelson Riddle, Axel Stordahl, Victor Young.  It was for that reason that the few numbers in which the soloists sang with the excellent Mark Dorrell at the piano were an agreeable change, sounding idiomatic.

The intention was to hit the ground running with the punchy Kiss me Kate number, ‘Another op’nin’, another show’. It’s a great song but it sounded too polite, its attack a bit restrained; its syncopation was just a little too accurate and rhythm just short of the kind of arresting call-to-order that it needs.

The programme included a large number of Porter’s songs, and the selection here was very satisfying, though the number was achieved by singing no more than one verse from several songs, sung without break as if a medley.

‘Begin the beguine’ opened the first group; one of the most sophisticated and complex of popular songs in its harmony and shape, it calls for an easy swing spiced with a subtle Latin rhythm and choir and orchestra made a good job of it. The two soloists came out for the first time for the evergreen ‘Night and Day’, one of Porter’s small masterpieces; it was nicely handled, though neither singer struck me as a crooner whose vocal delivery required amplification and the voices were thus coming from two sources – both acoustic, and amplified. The rest of the songs in the bracket were among Porter’s greatest classics – the beautiful ‘In the still of the night’ and ‘I’ve got you under my skin’ – and it was easy to overlook minor technical or stylistic shortcomings.

There were four songs from the memorable film High Society (Sinatra, Crosby, Armstrong, Grace Kelly), high spirited, care-free and they should have been high points in the programme. For ‘True Love’, Dorrell (he spoke spontaneously several times but without a microphone was hard to hear) took over at the piano with the two soloists (matching the great Crosby and Kelly duet in the film) whose vocal blend was not ideal. It seemed curious, too, that the two singers took positions far apart on either side of the conductor; such stage positioning has become an often absurd gimmick in modern opera productions. Occasionally it would have made sense, but most of the songs rather suggest a degree of closeness between two people. ‘Who wants to be a millionaire’ swung happily, and later in the programme, ‘Well did you evah’, sung by the two soloists, was a valiant effort with smart dialogue, with Dorrell at the piano. But good as it was, that song in the film has such a powerful imprint in the memory from the marvellous ensemble in the library, that anything else can pall. ‘Now you has jazz’ seriously miss-fired, seeming about as distant from a genuine jazz feel as you could get.

Each bracket adopted a theme. The first was Latin flavoured, as touched on above; the second was Paris – obviously, drawing from Can-Can (‘I love Paris’ and ‘C’est magnifique’) and Les Girls (‘Ça, c’est l’amour’ – though Crowe seemed unconvinced).

Crowe showed his talents better in the nostalgic ‘Where is the life’ from Kiss me Kate which produced some great songs. Though they avoided the too raunchy ‘Always true to you in my fashion’, Sarah, alone with Dorrell at the piano, sang a very feeling ‘So in Love’; but the up-tempo ‘Too darn hot’ really needs to be brazen and hard driven, a quality that rather evaded the choir.

The last song in the ‘Too darn hot’ set, entirely from the choir, was ‘It’s alright with me’ (from Can-Can) which, unfortunately for me, is forever owned by Errol Garner’s inimitable piano version; this performance had an authentic feel nevertheless.

In the last bracket which adopted the theme of the last song, ‘Anything goes’, began with ‘You’re the top’ from the show Anything Goes, and included ‘It’s de-lovely’ and ‘Let’s misbehave’. There was undoubtedly a growing feeling of ease and suppleness in the choir as the performance progressed and by the time of this last group both choir and orchestra were more comfortable and stylistically relaxed.

The audience was in no doubt about the concert and encores of ‘Blow Gabriel blow’ and ‘Begin the beguine’ were more gutsy and expressive than they had been at first performance.

It strikes me as possible that a foray into lighter music might be more within their range if they looked at European and American operetta from the era preceding Broadway, that began in the 1920s.



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