Varied, attractive 25th anniversary concert from Kapiti Chamber Choir

‘Full Circle’:
Byrd: Mass for Four Voices
Choral music by Katherine Dienes, Felicity Williams, David Hamilton, Rossini, and folk songs
Piano music by Janáĉek and Lilburn
Violin music by Tchaikovsky

Kapiti Chamber conducted by Stuart Douglas, with Carolyn Rait (piano) and Ken Dougall (organ); solos by Helen Ridley (piano) and Richard Taylor (violin, with accompanist Judith Wheeler)

St. Paul’s Church Waikanae

Sunday, 8 July 2012, 2.30pm

The ‘Full Circle’ of the title of the concert was due to the fact that this was the 20th anniversary concert of the choir, and the programme being performed was virtually the same as that performed at the initial concert.

The choir was founded by Professor Peter Godfrey at the request of two local singers: Paddy Nash and Pat Barry.  Peter Godfrey was present at the concert, as was his successor, Dr Guy Jansen.  Stuart Douglas took over last year.

The printed programme provided a list of works sung in each year of the 20. I appreciated having all the words and translations printed.

The singing of the Byrd Mass was very fine – full of beautiful chording and purity of tone, especially from the sopranos.  The quiet opening set the scene for contemplation and plangent melismas (though these were not quite so good as the chords).

The opening was a little uneven, as were the beginnings of some of the other movements.  Latin pronunciation was excellent, and beautiful vowels were to be heard throughout the work.

This was unaccompanied singing of a high standard.  Dynamics provided variety of expression; for example in the Gloria, at ‘propter magnam gloriam tuam’(‘according to your great glory’).

The decision to modernise the translated words in the printed programme rather than use the English words of the period, or of the Anglican Prayer Book of 1662, led to a few infelicities: despite “You alone are holy, You alone are the Lord”, we had “You who removes the sins of the world…You who sits on the right hand…”

In the ‘Domine Deus’ section of the Gloria the basses were particularly admirable, while at the ‘Qui tollis’, the parts were particularly well balanced, and all produced a lovely sound; this continued in the ‘Quoniam’.

The Mass was divided, so that the Kyrie, Gloria and Credo were heard together, then after the interval, the Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei.  This was a great idea; a sung mass is interspersed throughout a church service, not all sung at once.  The attention is more focused by interspersing it in this way.

Between the longer movements, Stuart Douglas used his pitch pipe; in this first part of the mass the intonation held up well.

The ‘Et incarnatus est’ in the Credo had a limpid quality.  I thought that if I shut my eyes, I could imagine I was listening to an all-male choir in the Chapel Royal in London, for which the work was composed.  (Ladies, this is meant as a compliment!)

The crescendo at ‘Et resurrexit’ was splendidly achieved without loss of tone.  The counterpoint at ‘Et iterum venturus est’ was a fit vehicle for the words ‘And he will come again with glory…’; sublime in both its conception and rendition.  From here to the end of the Credo, there was tricky music to sing, but this choir knew its stuff very well.

‘In the mists’ by Janáçek, a work in four movements, was played by Helen Ridley, who had played at that concert 20 years earlier.  This was difficult music, and as described in the short programme note, ‘enigmatic and often melancholy’.  The pianist in her introduction described the music as expressing the composer’s mental state, his isolation as a musician, seeing what he saw as a nationalist, as tragedy occurring in his country, and to him personally.  She said that he employed folk music, and the inflections of speech, and this was obvious in the andante first movement, which built from a quiet opening to turbulent passages followed by soft cascades.

The second movement, molto adagio also contained folksy sounds, but was more contemplative to begin with, followed by stormy passages that nevertheless used the same theme.  A quiet ending finished the movement.  The third, andantino was again folksy, but also one could imagine a conversation going on between higher and deeper voices.  The tonality was modal

The final presto was not very fast, and there were many hesitant figures (and in earlier movements also).  Faster passages followed, with numerous different figures, having a dance-like feeling.  This was very skilled playing of a seldom-heard work.

The choir turned now to unaccompanied New Zealand music, the first being ‘Jesu, dulcis memoria’ by Katherine Dienes.  I remember singing this in a church service at the Cathedral in Dunedin, as part of an early New Zealand Choral Federation conference.  It is a very fine piece.  The only difficulty here was that because women tenors are used as well as men, the tone is changed, since they are singing at the bottom of their voices, whereas the male tenors are often at the top of theirs, so the effect is quite different.  It was more noticeable in this work than in some of the others.

Next came ‘Exultate jubilate’ by Felicity Williams, accompanied on the piano by Carolyn Rait.  The Christchurch composer has created a piece that is truly joyous, and also thoughtful.

Lastly, David Hamilton’s ‘Nunc dimittis’, a very effective piece with lovely harmonies and a quiet ending.

After the interval, we had the remaining movements of the Byrd Mass.  The opening tonality of the ‘Sanctus’ seemed a little difficult to begin on, and was not quite together.  However, what followed demonstrated wonderful purity in the upper parts.

The start of the Benedictus also seemed also to provide some difficulty, though the pitch at the end was fine.  However, then the Agnus Dei started slightly flat.  The work lost a bit of life at the end, but I think Byrd would have been impressed overall, as was the audience.

Richard Taylor, violin, played with Judith Wheeler two parts of Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir d’un lieu cher, Op.42 ( ‘Mélodie’ and ‘Scherzo’), the composer remembering his stay at his benefactor’s Ukrainian estate.  This young violinist (12 years of age??) performed with confidence, excellent control, a warm tone, and technical mastery.  Having long fingers is obviously an advantage.  He used dynamics well in the well-known and very lyrical first part, and performed demanding runs and double-stopping in the second.  This was quite a tour de force for a young fellow, and, along with Judith Wheeler’s exemplary playing, received a great reception.

Three sacred works of Rossini were sung by the choir with the singers mixed up in their positions, rather than being together according to voice part.  I thought this improved the blend of the choir. ‘O salutaris hostia’ featured splendid dynamic variation, while ‘Ave Maria’ (again the start not quite together), and ‘Salve O Vergine Maria’ were well-performed, with organ.  The last (in Italian, not Latin) was more rollicking in nature and romantic in style.

Helen Ridley returned to play Sonatina no.2 by Douglas Lilburn.

This piece, which the composer had dedicated to his colleague and supreme interpreter, Margaret Neilsen, was also given a spoken introduction.  There was considerable use of the sustaining pedal, which had been clearly prescribed by Lilburn.

The piece had very spare scoring, and featured typical Lilburn rhythms.  The atmosphere of the bush was created with bird song.  The three short movements were mainly slow and dreamy, the ending fading away.  They were played with empathy and clarity.

To end this rather long concert the choir sang in English three unaccompanied folk song arrangements: ‘Early one morning’, ‘O come you from Newcastle’ (both English) and the American ‘Shenandoah’.  While they were all fine, the last was the most telling, with appealing harmonies and a real feeling of longing conveyed in the voices.  The last verse was split into many parts; a most effective arrangement and a lovely ending to the concert.

The choir, through a wide repertoire, proved itself most versatile and capable.


Ben Morrison and friends at St.Andrew’s

Two Great Piano Trios

BEETHOVEN – Piano Trio in B-flat Op.97 “Archduke”

SCHUBERT – PIano Trio in B-flat D.898

Benjamin Morrison (violin) /  Jane Young (‘cello) / David Vine (piano)

St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Sunday 8th July 2012

It was really Christchurch-born violinist Benjamin Morrison’s show, though, of course he couldn’t have played the “two great piano trios” on his own. So, joining him for this concert and making up what one might call an “ad hoc” group,  were ‘cellist Jane Young, currently principal ‘cello in the Vector Wellington Orchestra, and David Vine, well known Wellington-based pianist, conductor and scholar.  The ensemble had come together primarily for Ben Morrison’s benefit – he’s on a visit “home” from his current studies in Graz, Austria, where he’s completing a Masters degree in Solo Violin and Chamber Music. He’s played a good deal of chamber music while in Europe (and it shows), as well as competing and winning prizes in several competitions – for example, the National Chamber Music of Austria Competition,”Gradus ad Parnassum”.

Throughout the afternoon the three musicians played as their lives depended upon the outcome, with all the attendant thrills and spills one might expect from the circumstances. Of course, given the popularity of each of these wonderful trios, one can too easily take for granted their ever-present difficulties – while the music , in each case, can survive less-than-capable performances and still make an impression, everything properly blossoms and beguiles when, as here, the playing demonstrates a certain level of skill and understanding. There were moments which brought certain individual insecurities, but the ensemble rarely, if ever, faltered, and the essential strength and lyricism of each of the works was conveyed with enthusiasm and commitment.

While St. Andrew’s Church wasn’t filled to bursting, there was a sufficient number present to generate a keen listening atmosphere, with tingling lines connecting the sounds made by the players to their listeners’ ears. In this respect I thought Morrison’s playing in particular outstanding, his tone having a vibrancy at all times that, whether loud or soft, conveyed to us exactly what degree of feeling or colour was required of each phrase. I write this somewhat guiltily, as I’m realizing the extent to which I focused my attentions upon him throughout the concert, probably to the detriment of my registering what the others were doing. But I thought his playing most deservedly compelled such attention throughout.

First up was the Beethoven, marked here by restrained, very “reined-in” playing from pianist David Vine at the outset, obviously taking some time to settle, but nevertheless establishing a pulse which enabled the string players to fill out their lines amply with plenty of inflection and subtle colorings that suggested a conversation of equals. It was good to get the exposition repeat in that respect – twice the pleasure, and filled with interest registering the effects of “experience” upon the music, the interaction between Morrison and ‘cellist Jane Young a particular delight. The players enjoyed the “misterioso” elements of the development’s beginning, as well as relishing the exchanges of pizzicati notes, managing a proper surge of energy taking the music to the reprise of the “big tune”. In other words, the music’s ebb and flow was shaped most satisfyingly throughout.

The scherzo was distinguished by fine rhythmic pointing, apart from a slight hiccup at the top of one of the fugal-like phrases early on. The players made something terrific of the more trenchant passages, burgeoning their tones excitingly during each crescendo, and leaving us expectantly awaiting each subsequent wave of energy. Again, Ben Morrison’s playing projected a real sense of relishing both strivings and outcomes, giving plenty of musical substance to both his colleagues and to the audience. And the slow movement grew from the hymn-like opening throughout its variation movements as flowers gently and gloriously open in the sun, the players giving all the time in the world to the process of integrating a sense of arrival with a feeling of further exploration, thus preparing the way for the finale.

Here, the trajectories were delightfully bucolic, the performance surviving a bumpy patch amidst the tremolando-like pianistic figurations, and keeping its poise right through to the coda, which was excitingly done, the “schwung” of the of the music kept to the fore despite the occasional spills. What was particularly thrilling was the élan with which Ben Morrison threw off those concluding figurations, serving notice of an artistic coming-of-age which we all anticipate enjoying on occasions in the years to come.

After the Beethoven, the Schubert seemed more relaxed, the opening having a “Frei, aber froh” feeling about its forthright energies, not epic, heroic statements here, but still very Schubertian, very “gemächlich” or relaxed, a feeling further underlined by the lyrical second subject. I got the feeling throughout this movement, rightly or wrongly, with Ben Morrison’s playing, that he “sees” the music as if from a great height, and so is able to shape each paragraph of the symphonic argument with great surety, ably supported here by ‘cello and piano. The trio caught the music’s physicality in places, coming through not exactly unbloodied, but definitely triumphant.

The gem of this Trio is, of course, the slow movement, containing one of the composer’s loveliest melodies, and here sung to great effect by all concerned, especially by the violin. Ironically, it was in this movement, during the violin’s chromatic ascent from the central agitations back to the melody’s reprise, and again, briefly with the ascent to the final note, that the player’s intonation uncharacteristically wasn’t spot-on; but the ‘cello’s heavenly accompanying of the violin throughout this section, underpinned by the murmuring piano, banished all thoughts of human fallibility for just a short, treasurable moment in time.

Though I thought the Scherzo took time to settle rhythmically, the players managed the trickily-stressed dovetailing in places with great nimbleness, then relished the “cradle-song” aspect of the Trio for their own and for our pleasure. The cheekily-played opening of the finale had the theme passing from player to player, then adding to the insouciance with a strutting “Hungarian-like” episode, and further flavoring the experience with some ghostly shimmering from the strings – all very discursive, but held together with fine concentration, and a flair for characterization, the violinist demonstrating by turns his accompanying as well as his “leading” skills throughout.

At the piece’s conclusion, the audience was quick to show its appreciation of the performances, and in particular of Ben Morrison’s remarkable talent as a musician.