Bach: Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring
Fauré: Messe basse
Songs by Ennio Morricone, Bruno Coulais, Lionel Bart, Todd McNeal, Peter Allen, John Rutter
Pokarekare ana; Waltzing Matilda
National Boys Choir of Australia, directed by Peter Casey and Philip Carmody, accompanied by Robyn Cochrane (piano) and (in the Fauré) Richard Apperley (organ)
Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul
Monday, 10 July 2012, 5.30 pm
The visiting choir of 42 trebles is the cream of a much bigger enterprise, based in Melbourne, that trains 200 boys in choral singing. It was founded back in 1964, but this was the choir’s first visit ‘across the ditch’, despite its having visited many northern hemisphere countries, on no fewer than 14 tours.
In addition to producing a fine choral sound and singing all items from memory, the choir had excellent soloists performing in quite a number of the items.
The choir began by singing ‘Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring’ from the ambulatory, and processed in to take their positions on the chancel steps. The music was taken at a very fast pace, but the boys produced a gorgeous, unified sound that was well projected.
Unfortunately the same couldn’t be said for the considerable amount of talking to the audience that the two conductors did, as they alternated in the role. Neither used a microphone, and the second of the two spoke far too quickly than is audible in this size of auditorium, with its very resonant acoustic. They may have thought that with a small audience (approx. 50), most of whom were near the front, a mike was not necessary. But it is. There was considerable interaction with the audience, especially with the few children present, including quiz questions (most of which were too difficult for the children, but fun for the adults). All of this gave the boys a rest.
The Fauré Messe Basse, or Low Mass, consisted of four of the usual movements, but without Gloria or Credo. The Sanctus was notable for delicious echo effects. The cathedral acoustics were not a problem here; the music was written for this kind of building. The music was quite simple in style, but potent. Latin pronunciation was absolutely uniform, making for a clean, open sound.
The song River by Morricone (famous for film music, notably that for Chariots of Fire) was accompanied by a drum as well as piano. The music was quite percussive, the clear enunciation of the Italian words enhancing the effect of the music.
Next were settings of three poems by Walter de la Mare, by Todd McNeal, a contemporary Australian composer. ‘Five Eyes’ I knew in another composer’s setting, but this was a most effective one. The boys sang it in a sturdy and clear manner, and conveyed a picture of cats capturing ‘the thieving rats’. ‘Silver’ was once well-known to primary school pupils (maybe it still is): ‘Slowly silently, now the moon/Walks the night in her silver shoon’. The setting had a serene, calm feeling, as did I, listening. These boys know their music and words very well.
The third song, ‘Tartary’, had a grand character, although the setting didn’t allow all the words to be heard. These were, however, three skilful settings, sung well.
Three songs by Bruno Coulais from the film Les Choristes (two of them sung in English translation) followed. They were a very pleasing reminder of a heart-warming film.
Six songs from Lionel Bart’s Oliver: ‘Food, glorious food’, ‘Where is love’, ‘Oom-pah-pah’ (sung very heartily), ‘I’d do anything for you’, ‘Who will buy’ and ‘Consider yourself at home’ were performed with feeling, and character appropriate to each song. Soloists featured in several numbers; most were assured and communicated both music and words extremely well.
Although it was hard to hear all that was being said, I thought I heard New Zealand’s most famous Maori song, ‘Pokarekare ana’ attributed to Te Rangi Pai (or Fanny Rose Porter, Fanny Howie; a woman, not a man!). However, her famous song was ‘Hine, e Hine’. Wikipedia says ‘East Coast Māori song-writer Paraire Tomoana, who polished up the song [Pokarekare] in 1917 and published the words in 1921, wrote that “it emanated from the North of Auckland” and was popularised by Māori soldiers who were training near Auckland before embarking for the war in Europe.’
The choir’s Maori pronunciation was beautiful; the arrangement delightful.
This was followed by ‘Waltzing Matilda’, in an arrangement by Philip Carmody, featuring four soloists in harmony, blending their voices with superb tone. The choir used an appropriate accent, and incorporated whistling.
The choir then moved to the sides of the cathedral, around the audience, to sing Peter Allen’s popular ‘I still call Australia home – this featured a gorgeous pure note a the end – and finally Rutter’s beautiful setting of ‘The Lord bless you and keep you’. Suddenly, the acoustics no longer got in the way. The sound was quite lovely and everything was easily heard. For me, it was the high point of the concert.