The Big Sing – National Finale 2012
Organised by the New Zealand Choral Federation
Eighteen competing and four guest choirs, evening compered by Christine Argyle
Wellington Town Hall
Saturday 18 August, 6.30pm
Twenty-two choirs, including four ‘guest choirs’ which are not eligible for an award, from 16 schools came to Wellington for the annual singing jamboree known as The Big Sing, managed by the New Zealand Choral Federation. The festival began in 1988 when it was separated from the then Westpac Schools Music Contest which included chamber music groups as well as singers.
The latest figures showed that 148 schools, 235 choirs, and 8,440 singers registered to take part this year nationwide.
The Wellington regional festival had been held on 6 and 7 June in which 33 choirs sang (compared with 36 each from Christchurch and Auckland). Of those 33, five were selected for the Finale: Chilton Saint James School – Seraphim Choir, Tawa College – Twilight Tones, Wellington College – Wellington College Chorale, Wellington East Girls’ College – Cantala, Wellington Girls’ College – Teal Voices.
Wellington choirs won no Golds; three of them won Silver awards, two, Bronze
The choirs to attend the Finale were chosen through an arcane process at the end of the regional festivals that had taken place in June. They sang to each other and to their friends a families for three days till the three adjudicators had decided which of their pieces should be heard at the Final concert, when august people such as music critics might safely attend.
It’s a mighty production, actually starting around midday Saturday, when the ‘Massed Flash Choir’ sang and made a lot of noise in Civic Square. And the New Zealand Secondary Students Choir was on hand to astonish the drifters-by. Their programme included: Toia Mai (Paraire Tomoana)
Rytmus (Ivan Hrušovský)
Geistliches Lied (Johannes Brahms)
‘Mitten wir im Leben sind’ (Felix Mendelssohn)
Nemesi (John Psathas, commissioned for the 2011-12 NZSSC)
Hamba Lulu (traditional Zulu wedding song arranged by Mike Brewer)
‘Tofa Mai Feleni’ (Trad. Samoan, arr. Steven Rapana)
As the audience entered, most of the choirs were already there or coming in, and they performed in a variety of apparently spontaneous ways. The compere was Christine Argyle, announcer (presenter) on Radio New Zealand Concert. She described what the procedures were and how the organisers had reached this point. Her delivery and comments were useful, interesting and clear yet matched the gaiety of the evening excellently.
I could make certain general remarks about the music and its performance.
The thing feeds on itself. Year by year, the choirs observe the presentation ideas and stunts that proved successful and learn from them, so that few choirs confine themselves merely to singing the piece of music. There is a great variety in costumes, in members’ dispositions on the stage, their actions, hand and facial gestures, in extraneous and intraneous noises and sound effects.
Sometimes one can tell, after a while, how the organisers have been guided in deciding on the order of items: the strongest first or in the middle? grouped together so that contrasts are not too stark? a stunner at the end of the first half to encourage reckless drinks-buying at the Interval?
Those chosen for the Finale was dominated as much as ever by the schools that have become famous for their music, and a couple of them gained places for two choirs: Burnside High in Christchurch, Wellington East Girls’, Tawa, Marlborough Girls’ and Rangitoto colleges, and the two Westlake High schools on the North Shore; and among the private schools, St Cuthbert’s, Chilton St James, King’s College.
The choir that eventually won Platinum sang first: Bel Canto from Burnside High School, with the Gloria from a Mass by Hungarian composer György Orbán. A moderately big choir of tall girls, they are conducted by Sue Densem and also rehearse with a student conductor; they sang a conspicuously bright, non-pious movement with a brisk enthusiasm, sparkling with staccato and easy syncopation, at once setting the tone and a very high standard for the rest of the concert.
Nga Manu tioriori O Kapiti, a girls’ choir (a Reserve Guest choir) from Kapiti College sang ‘I am not yours’ by prominent New Zealand choral composer David Childs. (I heard a Kapiti College Choir sing it in 2009). The chair of the judges panel James Tibbles, in his witty overview at the end, remarked how David Hamilton seemed to have been supplanted as leading New Zealand choral composer by David Childs. Bridget O’Shanassy conducted. However, I thought it a somewhat limp, clichéd piece (ghosts of A Lloyd Webber?) which hardly encouraged the choir to demonstrate their real abilities.
All the King’s Men from the obvious college, is a new choir formed this year; they are conducted by King’s organist and choirmaster Nicholas Forbes. The choir won a Silver award with David Griffiths (only Davids need apply as New Zealand composers) setting of Curnow’s Wild Iron, a poem of short, staccato phrases that did not lend itself to easy delivery, but was handled with skill and intelligence.
From that unique musical by John Kander, Cabaret (Christopher Isherwood, stories, via John van Druten, play), Kristin School’s girls’ choir Euphony sang, with great resourcefulness and wit, ‘Don’t tell Mama’. They sat on low benches and took up changing dispositions, with splendid little vignettes, to create a brilliantly funny rendering, which won them laughter, on top of the shouts and screams (which are almost unvaryingly de rigueur). Cheryl Clarke’s jazz accompaniment was a vital ingredient; with at least some credit to conductor David Squire, it got them a Gold.
Macleans College Choir, Howick sang a Mendelssohn song, In Grünen. It could not have been a greater contrast; though a perfectly unobtrusive song, the experienced hands of their conductor Terence Maskill showed in the way they coped with its demands: in tonally variety, subtlety, in exploring its simple, Romantic era sentiment with integrity and vivacity, all of which they carried off with plain honesty. The judges agreed with my assessment of Gold.
Marist Stella, a guest girls’ choir from Marist College in Auckland, conducted by Rostislava Pankova-Karadjov, tackled Louis Armstrong’s last charts success, in 1968, ‘What a Wonderful World’, with open and unaffected sentimentality. Not the way Armstrong would have played it but, with their undulating tempi, care and feeling, he’d have loved them for it.
Mandate, another pun-title choir from Otago Boys’ High School, sang another comic scena ‘Kiss the Girl’ which I’ve heard sung at an earlier Big Sing. They have made the Finale several times since 1996 and have been conducted by Karen Knudson since 1998. It’s a barbershop number, tackled with manly confidence by this 35-or-so choir, with odd accompanying sound effects and discreet witty gestures. The crowd loved it and the judges too: Silver.
Christine calmed audience alarm by disclosing that SOS means ‘Sisters of Soul’. The auditioned girls’ choir of 38 members from Rangitoto College was founded in 1992 by Jillian Rowe, and they have reached the Finale most years since then. Under Karen Roberts they sang Beau Soir, an arrangement of a Debussy song that one might have had difficulty attributing. This short, not very remarkable song, in very fair French, had attributes similar to Macleans College Choir’s Mendelssohn; the virtue of unpretentiousness and plain, attractive musicality. It too won them a Silver.
Another Rangitoto College choir, The Fundamentals (how pervasive is the widespread fashion among pop bands for taking abstract nouns as their names), also sang Mendelssohn, in German: three poems by Heine together entitled Tragödie. Curiously enough, I heard them sung recently at a Bach Choir concert: this performance captured them with a little more youthful enthusiasm. The choice of these songs involved more than fundamentals, and their polish, dynamic variety and tonal precision, singing unaccompanied, were well handled by conductor, Jonathan Palmer. They demonstrated elegant expressive gestures which I thought might have gained them better than Bronze.
Bella Voce, from Marlborough Girls’ College, directed by Robin Randall, has done well over the years. They sang, with gestures that were not really integrated in the performance, the spiritual ‘Aint no grave can hold my body down’. It’s a well-schooled choir but they gained only Bronze. Here too it was useful to bear in mind that the judges’ decisions are based, not on the evening’s performances, but on their singing in the previous two days.
Burnside’s auditioned mixed choir, Senior Chorale, also under Sue Densem, sang the gently sentimental, a cappella, Earth Song. It might not be an especially arresting song but it made an impact through their slow, quiet, restrained approach, with exquisite dynamic and tone control. But there was real integrity here and they made quite an impression. I was not surprised at their Gold award.
The first half ended with The Seraphim Choir, the premier auditioned choir from Lower Hutt’s Chilton St James School, singing another disguised Debussy song, Nuits d’étoiles. Again in quite good French, conducted by Ella Buchanan Hanify and accompanied by Hugh McMillan, the song is hardly a masterpiece, but it is a good choice to offer judges of taste and refinement, who properly awarded Silver.
Wellington Girls’ College opened the second half; their Teal Voices (teal, the school colour) sang ‘Like a Rainbow’ which involved many repetitions of those words. Though he’s a prolific American choral composer of some renown, Bob Chilcott’s song seemed to do the choir few favours, though the performance, guided by Nicola Sutherland and Michael Fletcher employing small groups or individual voices attractively, was imaginative enough. A Bronze.
Viva Camerata from Wairarapa’s Rathkeale and St Matthew’s Collegiate, a guest choir, sang another comedy number, The Driving Lesson. The choir, conducted by Kiewiet van Deventer and accompanied by Adam Gordon, enacted the little skit effectively if without great flair, but its slender, somewhat obvious wit needed more adult skills than a teenage group is likely to command.
Saint Cuthbert’s in Auckland also entertained the crowd with ‘Johnny said No’; their auditioned choir. Saints Alive, under the direction of Megan Flint, with light and deft singing and discreet, comic gestures, carried it off in a certain droll style, which gained them a Silver award.
A mixed choir, Twilight Tones, an auditioned choir within Tawa College’s main choir, the Dawn Chorus, sang ‘Give me Jesus’. Alongside so many choirs exhibiting flair in both singing, histrionics and comic talents, something special is needed in presenting a traditional religious song. The singing, under Isaac Stone, was technically fine, under good, unostentatious control, but something was needed to lift it from the merely very good.
Saint Kentigern College from Auckland sent a large guest choir, Menasing (get it?). It’s unauditioned, in its first year. Their party piece was a highly effective performance, guided by Lachlan Craig and involving bass and drums, plus piano, as well as comic sound effects, of ‘I’ll fly away’. It elicited stentorian teenage shrieks as bassist took his instrument under his arm, like a guitar.
Con Brio is no stranger to the Big Sing. From Villa Maria College in Christchurch, they included a double-ended drum to accompany, otherwise a cappella, the Xhosa song, Dubula. Their party piece was to launch by throwing off their jerseys. But they also captured the African sound brilliantly. The fact that their conductor, Rosemary Turnbull, stood aside to some effect, might have prompted the remark by Tibbles about the conductor as sometimes surplus to requirements.
Wellington College Chorale, an auditioned choir, sang Toki Toki, a Malaysian song arranged by their conductor Katie Macfarlane. Bearing ethnic relationships in mind, it revealed a quality that could have been Polynesian, and it gave the performance an air of idiomatic ease. They judged their movements carefully and achieved a performance that was vocally skilled and visually effective, gaining a Silver award.
Cantala, from up the hill at Wellington East Girls’ College which had been in the news with its triumphant recent international tour also won (only) a Silver. Dressed in one of the prettiest of all the costumes, their droll song, Bitte Betti, was enacted with refinement and restraint but through that achieved a performance that both revealed some fine individual voices and excellent ensemble singing, not to mention the skilful direction of Brent Stewart.
David Squire conducts Westlake Boys’ High School choir, Voicemale, of round 50 boys. They sang ‘Embraceable You’ from Gershwin’s Girl Crazy, a fairly short song, but more than enough to prove splendid balance of the parts and ensemble, all in a perfectly gauged style, gaining them a Silver award.
Placed at the end of the concert was another choir with a punning conflation of a name, Choralation, from a conflation of Westlake Boys’ and Girls’ High Schools. In the previous three years they gained the Platinum Awards and this year had to settle for Gold. They did that under Rowan Johnston with the Gloria from Bob Chilcott’s Little Jazz Mass, which called for guitar, bass and drums as well as sparkling supported in by their pianist.
The Big Sing does not end there, but continued with snippets of a video of the lunchtime spectacles and speeches; the most insightful came from the chairman of the adjudicators’ panel, James Tibbles, hinting at the need to explore a greater variety of New Zealand composers, and of getting more representation of Maori music and singing which are distinctly absent, though glancing at the choirs appearing at the regional sessions, it looks as if choirs with a larger Maori element simply don’t quite achieve the level demanded. (I wonder whether, as in so many aspects of the way in which Maori prefer to follow paths in education and the arts that tends to view their own culture on terms equal to the rest of the world, their music achievements are disadvantaged by disregarding the importance of the universal world of classical music).
Thus the award for the performance of a song with Maori text went to Saints Alive from St Cuthbert’s, from a not very large field.
The Minister for Culture and Heritage Chris Finlayson spoke and handed out the awards, which have been mentioned in the remarks about each choir. His admiration for the entire fabric of the festival reflected what is certainly felt by all involved, that it is probably remarkable at an international level for qualities like collegiality and generosity, for the huge variety of musical styles and cultures that flourish, and that the size of the country makes possible the staging of an event of this kind that reaches such a wide and disparate range of communities.
It’s also necessary to recognise the extraordinary feat of organization by teachers and choral federation workers throughout the country in regional and national phases of the Big Sing festival.
It ended with all 750 or so, shoulder-to-shoulder on the choir stalls in massed singing of two South African songs, just rehearsed, conducted by Andrew Withington, conductor of the NZSSC. And organist Thomas Gaynor, a couple of days before leaving to take up a scholarship at the Eastman School of Music in New York State, accompanied the massed singing, by choirs and audience, of the National Anthem.