‘Does a cappella singing get better than this?’ – Wellington members of the New Zealand Youth Choir

Choral songs and anthems by Handl, Bruckner, Pearsall, Bàrdos, Richard Madden, Stephen Lange, Anthony Ritchie, Andrew Baldwin, Helen Caskie, George Shearing, with arrangements by Douglas Mews, Christopher Marshall, Stephen Chatman

Wellington Members of the New Zealand Youth Choir, conducted by David Squire

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace church

Wednesday 29 February 2012, 12.15pm

It was gratifying to see the church nearly full for the thirteen members of the choir who sang an interesting and varied programme.

Immediately they began, the choir had a wonderful, confident sound.  The opening item, ‘Resonet in laudibus’ was by Jacob Handl, a sixteenth century Slovenian composer also known as Gallus.  The pure sounds in this sympathetic acoustic made it hard to believe that there were so few performers.  Balance between the parts was excellent throughout the concert.

A long-term favourite of the Choir followed: Bruckner’s beautiful ‘Locus Iste’.  The singers’ start was not quite together, but that could hardly spoil such a supreme pearl of choral writing.

Another chestnut for this choir was sung: Pearsall’s madrigal ‘Who shall win my lady fair?’, a nineteenth century composition.  Its performance demonstrated how well the choir sings out to the audience, but also, as elsewhere in the programme,  how the singers vary tone, expression and word style as appropriate for each item.  To me, this is the mark of a really good, flexible choir.  It is not just a matter of dynamics.  The expression in this song exhibited both charm and subtlety.  Stresses on important words were carefully observed.

The Hungarian composer Lajos Bàrdos’s ‘Libera me’ was next.  The men opened a shade sharp in pitch, but overwhelmingly, the a capella singing was impressively secure, even, as in this piece, when singing intervals of a second.  The piece traverses various pitches, moods and dynamics.  It is in several sections: first declamatory, then low-voiced and sombre, then gentle and melismatic.

We now turned to New Zealand compositions.  Richard Madden’s ‘I sing of a maiden’ has been around for a while now, and has lost none of its exquisite beauty and delicious clashes that resolve so mellifluously.  The piece featured soprano and tenor soloists.  The breath control was remarkable.  If the singers are as good as this under-rehearsed (as David Squire described it), they must certainly be New Zealand’s top choir when fully prepared.  It must not be forgotten that the New Zealand Youth Choir of 1999 won ‘Choir of the World’ in Cardiff.

Stephen Lange’s ‘The cloths of heaven’, composed to words of John Keats, was a difficult piece, with many enchanting discords.

Another NZYC favourite: Douglas Mews’s ‘Sea songs’, an arrangement of early New Zealand folk songs about whaling.  This was rollicking and characterful music on a subject distasteful to us today, but an important industry in the early days of colonisation, and before.

Christopher Marshall’s arrangement of the traditional Samoan ‘Minoi, minoi’ is one of the most delightfully rhythmic songs one will ever hear.  It reminds us how music and dance are all one in many parts of the world.  It was sung more lightly than I have sometimes heard it, which is appropriate to the words of the love-song.

Jeffrey Chang, tenor, sang two solos, giving the choir a rest, with Michael Stewart (former choir member) accompanying on the piano.  Chang announced the songs in a clear voice, loud enough to be easily heard (take note, New Zealand School of Music lecturers and students!).  David Squire’s announcements of the other items were made using a microphone.

The first solo was ‘Song’ by Anthony Ritchie, with wonderful words by James K. Baxter, speaking of Jesus as a human, and his characteristic of mercy.  It was beautifully sung: expressive, effective, with very clear words.  Both songs were sung from memory.

The second was an arrangement by former choir member Andrew Baldwin, of the spiritual ‘Deep River’.  This did not come off quite so well.  The performance did not sufficiently express the emotions of a slave in southern USA – it was too matter-of-fact in places, although there were some lovely moments.  The register was a little too low for this singer.

The choir returned with a traditional Newfoundland folk song, ‘She’s like the swallow’, arranged by Stephen Chatman.  It began with women’s voices only, then the men joined in.  Once again, the clarity of the words was notable.

New Zealand composer Helen Caskie has written a three-movement work ‘Ten Cent Mixture’, to amusing poems by Fiona Farrell.  The first tells the story of a sun-burnt kiwifruit.  Here I heard the first harsh tone in the concert; perhaps this was the result of introducing humour into the voices.  Next was a song about leaving your dreams behind when you go to school (oh dear!), and the third was about going to see Mr Prasad at the dairy to buy lollies.

These were lively and ingratiating settings, sung with animation.  The last song particularly was very funny, and sung in appropriate humorous style.

The concert wound up with an arrangement by Andrew Carter of George Shearing’s ‘Lullaby of Birdland’.  Just as the Caskie songs were sung in a suitably childish style, so this swing number was rendered in the proper style, American accent and all.

Most of this repertoire is to be presented in Hawke’s Bay in April, with all 48 members of the full choir; the audiences there are in for a treat.  Does a cappella singing get better than this?  I ask this as someone who has just heard the King’s Singers live, in the splendid acoustic of Hamilton’s Performing Arts Centre at the University of Waikato.



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