Secondary Students’ Choir, versatile and deeply impressive, prepares for tour to South Africa

New Zealand Secondary Students’ Choir in Concert directed by Andrew Withington

Sacred Heart Cathedral

Saturday, 14 April 1012, 7.30pm

Choral music seems to be on the up and up, not only here, but in other countries as well.  Any choir would be exceedingly proud to sing as well as this choir does; all the more surprising, because the members, from all parts of New Zealand, meet only in school holidays, and because every work (except the newly-commissioned one) was sung from memory. ‘Sung’ includes body percussion, actions, sign language and vocal sounds other than singing.

The choir is a two-year choir only; another reason for celebrating its continued excellent form and versatility.  At the climax of each two-year round, the choir travels overseas.  This year, it was to have been to Greece, for the International Society for Music Education conference.  That is presumably the reason for a new work being commissioned, to be sung in the Greek language, from John Psathas.

Sadly, as a result of the civil disturbances and the economic austerity measures there decreed by the European Union, this trip will not now take place.  At the end of the concert we were informed that a CD of the programme we heard will be made soon; perhaps that CD could be sent to Greece and played at the conference, as a poor second-best to having the choir live.  Instead, the choir will travel to a music festival in South Africa.

A generous 20-item programme greeted a near-full church.  Energy never seemed to flag, and the items were all sung well.  I counted 10 different languages employed; I’m sure this is a record in the annals of choral concerts I have attended – and they are many.  Each language sounded authentic and beautifully pronounced, including Icelandic, Swedish and Irish – not that I know these languages.  This level of proficiency takes hard work, but is ultimately only achieved through each singer making the vowels and the consonants in exactly the same way as the other singers; this also produces the clarity of words that marks this choir.

The opening was dramatic: with the church in darkness, the choir processed in, holding candles, while a single low note on the organ was echoed by quiet intoning from only the lowest and highest voices in the choir, in what sounded like Russian.

Then, with candles out and lights on, the familiar ‘Veni, veni Emmanuel’ was sung, beautifully balanced (as indeed was almost everything on the programme).  It became unfamiliar, in a wonderful arrangement by Zoltán Kodály, presumably in Hungarian.

Sixteenth-century composer Jacob Handl (not to be confused with G.F.) wrote mainly church music.  His ‘Resonet in Laudibus’ was one of the few familiar pieces on the programme.  Its splendid antiphonal effects and varied dynamics (double choir) were marked in the magnificent acoustic of Sacred Heart.

It was followed by one of the most well-known choral pieces ever written: ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ from Handel’s Messiah.  This was one of the least successful items.  Firstly, too much time was spent in the choir moving around into single choir format.  The basses, who shone in the first item, did not seem quite able to emulate the sound of an adult choir.  The organ accompaniment was rather mixed in style, and too much of the singing was at an unvarying double forte.  My note made at the time reads ‘they are certainly exploiting this acoustic’.  Nevertheless, it was a good performance.

Rossini’s ‘O Salutaris Hostia’ had the choir sounding like a much more mature group than the high school students they are.  The tone was rounded and beautifully warm; intonation was almost immaculate; as before, words were clear, and rhythm was spot-on.  No wonder this choir, or rather, its earlier manifestations, has won an impressive list of international prizes.  Here again, there were a few too many sustained double-fortes for this lively acoustic, and a few attacks were not quite together, or were not all on exactly the same note.  But this is carping.

Another good feature is that, without being stiff, the choir members stand still.  There is no obvious wriggling or wagging of heads.  And for all 61 singers to have memorised such a range of different music is astonishing.

Mendelssohn’s choral music is not as well-known as it should be, apart from Elijah.  The piece ‘Mitten wir im Leben sind’ was a lively example.  It was followed by ‘Geistliches Lied’ by Brahms, accompanied on the organ.  Beginning with a soprano solo, this was a quieter number, but built to a climax before dying away again.

Groups of items were introduced by various choir members and others; the announcement of the next piece was inaudible, despite the microphone, but having picked up ‘ovsky’ and perused the programme, I discovered it was ‘Rytmus’, by Ivan Hrušovský.  This very rapid contemporary piece was unaccompanied, like the majority of the pieces presented.  The Slovakian composer had certainly provided challenges, to which the choir was equal.  Pieces such as this would have benefited from brief programme notes.

Following a short interval, the choir presented the commissioned work from John Psathas: Nemesi, about the goddess Nemesis, who worked to maintain an equilibrium between good fortune and evil deeds.  Here, the choir used sheet music on stands, so that their hands were free for rhythmic clapping (both soft and loud, like that of Spanish flamenco musicians) and clicking fingers.  Other body percussion employed light foot-stamping, and non-voiced whispering sibilants and other mouth noises, while a small cymbal and a triangle were employed briefly.

A very effective piece, it made use of much chant-like singing and very spare writing.  Perhaps it relied a little too much on effect rather than choral technique; colours in sound rather than singing.  Alto and soprano soloists were splendid; this is a piece that could readily find a place in the repertoires of other choirs.  A partial standing ovation followed the performance, at which the composer was present.

Pieces by New Zealand composer Richard Oswin followed: ‘Sweet Sleep’, ‘Altered Days’, and three Gallipoli settings: ‘Gallipoli Peninsula’ (the poem by Alistair Te Ariki Campbell), ‘The last to leave’ and ‘The spirit of Anzac’.  The first featured lovely harmonies and sensitive treatment of the words, including some Maori words.  The next was sung with a New Zealand accent, and placed tricky parts against each other.  I liked the fact that it was characterised by a tone different from that used for Rossini or Mendelssohn, showing that the choir was able to vary how it sounded depending on the music and words in hand.

The first of the Gallipoli songs began with the ssh-ssh of  the sea coming in and going out on a beach.  The music eloquently illustrated the words.  The very touching poem was treated to lovely tone and a great bass sound.  Enunciation was so uniform that the words could readily be heard and understood.  The second song included some unison singing, which was very telling.  There was rich sound in the harmony sections.  The final song was a rollicking one – perhaps Gallipoli as the soldiers pretended it was as they were leaving, rather than how it really was?

After the second short interval, Paraire Tomoana’s ‘Toia Mai’ was presented, with guitar and many actions, and chanting from the men.  This and the following two items appeared to be sung without conductor.  The vigorous, full-throated tone from the men and the lively actions from the whole choir brought an enthusiastic response.

The altos and sopranos performed ‘Glettur’(by Stephen Hatfield, a Canadian composer), in Icelandic.  It involved them sitting or standing in groups, using appropriate actions and facial expressions as they apparently gossiped and ‘chatted’, with lots of rolled ‘r’s; the result was brilliant.

If plenty of verbal facility was needed for that piece, it was needed even more by the tenors and basses, especially the cantor; he had many tongue-twister words to sing, in the Irish ‘Dúlamán’ by Michael McGlynn.  It demonstrated a great dynamic range.

A Swedish song followed: ‘Glädjens blomster’, arranged by Hugo Alfvén (composer of the famous Swedish Rhapsody).  A short, attractive piece that opened with a passage of humming, it was very expressive.

Two French songs now; one by a Frenchman (sixteenth century but sounding very up-to-date), the other, ‘Dirait-on’, by an American, Morten Lauridsen.  The first, a very fast ‘La la la, je ne’lose dire’ that I was familiar with from a record of the King’s Singers.  This performance suffered nothing by comparison.

An arrangement by James Erb of the well-known ‘Shenandoah’ was accompanied on piano.  This was a very smooth and beautiful rendering, making something familiar sound fresh.  At the entry, the men were not quite on the same note, but elsewhere they were very fine.

A change of mood in the third of four American songs was an arrangement of Gershwin’s ‘S Wonderful’, with soloist Latafale Auva’A, who turned on the appropriate style and accent confidently, with great timing.  String bass and piano accompanied her; the audience loved it.

The next item, ‘Praise His Holy Name’ by Keith Hampton was lively, also with piano and bass, and had the choir animated throughout its repetitive phrases.  The final item involved plenty of clapping and actions, the choir moving around the church: the Samoan ‘Tofa Mai Feleni’.  It had a hymn-like quality, with shouting and shrilling at the end, and was sung in Samoan and English, with Samoan drum and sticks backing.

A standing ovation was rewarded with ‘Wairua Tapu’, accompanied by guitar, and with complex and varied actions, which a couple of friends suggested was actually New Zealand sign language – our third official language.

The choir is versatile; in a variety of genres it was equally successful. This is choral singing at its best.  One would be hard-pressed to find an adult choir in New Zealand as good as this, and certainly not one singing the entire repertoire (not counting the new work) from memory.

Congratulations and salutations, New Zealand Secondary Students’ Choir!  Enjoy South Africa – I am sure you will represent us well.


One thought on “Secondary Students’ Choir, versatile and deeply impressive, prepares for tour to South Africa

  1. Alexander Smith says:

    Thank you so much for your kind and responsive words to our performance. It helps to have someone who knows what they are talking about when telling not only us but everyone else how we sung on the night.

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