Listening to ourselves: Voices New Zealand

Chamber Music New Zealand presents


Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir

Karen Grylls (director)

Horomona Horo (taonga puoro)

Music by Hildegard of Bingen, David Childs, Douglas Mews, Morten Lauridsen, Christopher Marshall,

Helen Fisher, David Griffiths, David Hamilton, Benjamin Britten, Henry Purcell (arr. Eriksson)

Wellington Town Hall

Saturday, 19th November, 2011

The concert was brought into being by the sounds of a trumpet played by Horomona Horo, creating both a ceremonial and a haunting effect, and thus suggesting limitless possibilities. One of these, appropriately resembling a voice from long ago, was a Sequence composed by Hildegard of Bingen, the twelfth-century abbess, poet, composer and mystic. Growing beautifully from out of the expectant silence, the text O viridissimi Virga sung the praises of the Virgin Mary, hailing her as the “greenest branch” from which sprang “harvest ready for Man, and a great rejoicing of banqueters”. Hildegard’s unison lines were then interspersed among the choir’s voices, Pepe Becker’s beautifully stratospheric soprano tones prominent amongst them, to which was added the gentle counterpointing of another of the taonga puoro, on this occasion a flute. The presentation seemed like a kind of ritual of birth, of bringing the music into being by awakening the spirit within each and every voice – and on this occasion calling up a creative impulse to speak to us from half a Millennium away – all very impressive in a quiet and undemonstrative manner.

David Child’s lyrical Salve Regina followed, the vocal lines baroque-like in their detailing and deployment – solo, small group and whole ensemble interacting as a living organism, conductor Karen Grylls achieving with the voices a great haunting beauty at the concluding words, “O clemens, o pia, o dulcis Virgo Maria”, aided by a mesmeric repetition of the word “Maria” at the end.

From “Saints and Angels” (the works were bracketed thus throughout the concert) we moved to “Voices of Fire”, beginning with the coruscations of Douglas Mews’ Ghosts, Fire and Water,a work which made a huge impression on me when I heard it performed some years ago. Written in 1972, it was inspired by a poem by British author James Kirkup, his response, in turn to a series of paintings which became known as the “Hiroshima Panels”, and whose subject was the dropping of the first atomic bomb on that city in 1945. The opening lines “These are the ghosts of the unwilling dead” sets the sombre tone of the work, the stark vocal lines having no warmth, expressing only horror and shock at the effects of the carnage, sometimes bleak unisons, sometimes irruptions of biting repetitions of figurations. Spoken voices are powerfully set against the singing in places, the phrase “Love one another” in different languages over a hymn-like backdrop, the silence at the end as eloquent as the last utterances.

A different world of feeling, indeed, from Morten Lauridsen’s Madrigali, which followed – six settings of Renaissance verses by various poets, all in praise of “love’s fire” – hence the Six “Fire Songs” of the work’s full title. Each setting is informed by the composer’s initial “fire-chord”, a cluster of intensities, sizzling and coruscating, impulses that recur throughout the cycle. I liked the contrast between the lively and capricious No.3 “Amor, Io Sento L’alma”, a depiction of a growing conflagration of love, and the tearful despair of the following “Io piango”, the weeping underpinned by a mournful bass line. And the concluding “Se per Havervi, Ohime!” set a ground-swelling clustered-harmonied hymn at the beginning through to a rapt, rich sinking conclusion, enlivened by a brief upward impulse at the end, everything beautifully and robustly characterized by the voices.

Then came “Voices of the Earth and Sea”, Karen Grylls talking with us briefly about the works in this bracket being a “collage of landscape”. Helen Fisher’s Pounamu was the one that made the deepest impression on me, the flute-sounds conjured up by Horomono Horo in haunting accord with the long-breathed vocal lines, the Maori text a proverb from Tainui, beginning with the words “May the calm be widespread…..” and later evoking “the shimmer of summer” with constantly undulating lines and the flute’s cry riding the skies like a falcon in watchful flight – all of this was so beautifully realized.

Christopher Marshall’s Horizon 1 (part of a larger cycle of settings) briefly but effectively set words by Ian Wedde from a poem “Those Others’, referring to the Maori view of creation, and sounding the unceasing “breath of life” behind the alto’s beautiful but austere line. Then, David Griffiths’ two vignette-like pieces from the work Five Landscapes took us firstly to Southland’s Oreti Beach, and afterwards to Mount Iron, a Wanaka landmark – the first characterized by ceaselessly complaining winds, and the second filled out with hugely imposing blocks of tone, punctuated by quieter harmonic clusters.

A new and stirring work by David Hamilton rounded off the local content of the program – Karakia of the Stars. Here, voices were used instrumentally, along with Horo’s koauau patternings, the sounds of tapping stones, and the Arvo Pärt-like tintinabulations of little bells – the singers and instrumentalists having evoked the starry firmament, the chant welled up from terra firma, the mens’ voices counterpointing the womens’, underpinned by stampings and gesturing and resounding through the spaces. A note from the composer told us that the chant was part of a longer invocation to the stars “to provide a bountiful supply of food for the coming year” – a ‘between-the-lines” election-year message for our politicians, perhaps?

Lastly, “Voices of Nature” presented music from two of England’s greatest composers, Britten and Purcell – firstly, Britten’s beautiful Five Flower Songs, all but the last settings of English poetry, the exception being the traditional “Ballad of Green Broom”. From the madrigal-like realization of the opening “To Daffodils”, through the angularities of “Marsh Flowers” and the rapt hymnal of “The Evening Primrose”, these songs brought to our ears a wonderful synthesis of creative imagination and stunning performance evocation, ending with smiles at the wry wit of the composer’s “Green Broom” setting. Normally, such a bouncy, good-humored number would nicely round off a concert, but the ensemble chose instead to enchant us further with Purcell’s Music for a While, a song written for John Dryden’s tragedy “Oedipus”, here arranged for choir by Gunnar Eriksson. Pepe Becker’s pure, focused tones were very much to the fore, here, delivering the melody with searing beauty, the lines harmonized in places by women’s voices and the ground bass patterns vocalized by tenors and basses. It seemed for a few intensely lovely moments to tell us just why it is we listen to music and go to concerts.

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