The Sixteen’s second concert, a cappella, a benchmark performance

New Zealand International Arts Festival

The Sixteen  conducted by Harry Christophers

A cappella music by Tallis, Morley, Gibbons, Byrd, Sheppard, Tippett, Britten and James MacMillan

The Town Hall, Wellington

Saturday 3 March 7.30pm

The second concert by The Sixteen was devoted to music by composers born in Britain, not simply one who spent most of his life in the country, as was the first of The Sixteen’s concerts.

Two groups of Tallis’s ‘Tunes for Archbishop Parker’s Psalter’ were sung, four at the beginning and four at the end of the concert. They were a sort of purifying wash to introduce the audience to singing that was not too complex – in fact the first began with four men singing in unison – allowing the unprepared ear to adjust to the acoustic of the hall and to sample the sounds of many individual voices.

The choir is perhaps a little unusual in having more men than women, though that is because parts otherwise sung by female altos are here sung by male altos (or counter-tenors). It lent the ensemble a quality that set the exemplary sopranos in marked contrast to the weight of males singing the other parts.

Tallis’s ‘Salvator mundi’, in Latin, was a striking illustration of Tallis’s versatility, coping with the dangers of religious dogma as the country moved back and forth between Catholicism and Protestantism. And the choir demonstrated the contrast between Tallis’s setting of English and Latin texts as clearly as his shift from the vertical harmony of English music to traditional Latin polyphony.

The Latin element was very temporary and it was followed by English part-songs: Morley’s ‘April is in my Mistress’ Face’ and Gibbons’s very beautiful ‘The Silver Swan’; the weight and warmth of the men’s voices kept the mood from becoming too ‘hey-nonny-nonny’ in Byrd’s ‘This sweet and merry Month of May’. John Sheppard’s ‘In Manus Tuas III’ returned to a Latin text, opening with a demonstration of men’s voices in unison, and then a strong counter-tenor solo.

The first half finished in the 20th century however with, first, James MacMillan’s ‘Sedebit Dominus Rex’, given a subtle Scottish accent (it’s one of his Strathclyde Motets), an attractive separation of men’s and women’s roles, to produce singing of very great emotion.

There was a second piece from MacMillan’s Strathclyde Motets later: a striking contribution by women’s voices as well as the gentle opening section by basses, marked his ‘Mitte manum tuum’, again quite short and technically approachable.

The best known part of Tippett’s A Child of Our Time – the five spirituals – brought the first half to an end, with several opportunities for strong solo voices, particularly female.

Yet, what is it about a composer’s fundamental well-spring of invention and emotional power that consigns almost all of his music – apart from arrangements of existing melodies – to museum status almost within his own lifetime? No want of trying on my part, yet I feel impelled to revisit almost nothing even of the music I have on my own CDs.

The second half was also a satisfying mixture of the 16th and the 20th centuries; It began with three more Latin motets by Tallis, each with its distinct character, reflected in the tempo, in the varying amounts of legato singing, and the vocal colours produced by the choir.

The curious little dissonances (remarked in the programme notes) gave ‘O nata lux’ vitality; the next, ‘O sacrum convivium’, was by contrast sombre, calm and quite extended. The third motet, ‘Loquebantur variis linguis’, cleverly simulated a complex tissue of disparate languages through elaborate counterpoint: even those without Latin could have worked it out.

There was another Byrd motet, his masterpiece ‘Laudibus in sanctis Dominum’, that seemed to mark him as an English composer, set to song-like music in which vertical harmonies were as audible as the elaborate counterpoint.

The other major contribution from the modern repertoire were the Choral Dances from Britten’s opera Gloriana. For long, these were about all that was much performed from an opera that was inexplicably felt to be a ritual occasional piece, but is now firmly placed among Britten’s greatest operas. I was delighted to catch a performance a couple of years ago in the Ruhr, in Germany. Britten himself arranged this unaccompanied version of the dances, and I have to say, heretically, they did not make quite the impression on me that the original operatic ones did. They emerged, for me, somewhat affected and bloodless; but the performance of them was far from that.

The choir presented an encore: an arrangement by choral composer Bob Chilcott of a Tallis anthem.

Finally, the programme booklet was a model. It provided a wealth of rich and informative material about the choir and its director, but also writings about the composers and their social and political situation, and evocative thoughts about the nature of the music itself, all of which might deepen listeners’ knowledge.

Not enough of the audience bought the programme however.

From time to time I express my view that programmes for concerts – and other performing arts too – should be provided free. For a year or so New Zealand Opera did that, but later reverted to the practice of confining them to those who could pay the fairly high price for them. That is to sacrifice a valuable opportunity to deepen and broaden the audience’s knowledge of what it is hearing, a matter of even more importance now that most of the population under 50 is approaching the more serious arts without the benefit of any formal exposure to them at school where the sounds of good music (and poetry and foreign languages) can be implanted, perhaps subliminally, in the minds of the young – when that faculty is at its most receptive.

The major cost of programmes lies in the preparation of the texts and the design and formatting of the printing; for the fruits of those efforts to be restricted to a minority of the audience is a sad lost opportunity to educate.

The programme also took the trouble to ask the audience to refrain from clapping between the items in a group; the fact that few on the audience had programmes meant that there was applause between the numbers in Tippett’s Five Spirituals.

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