LAND, SEA and FRIENDLY CREATURES
Wellington Community Choir
Directed by Julian Raphael and Carol Shortis
Diedre Irons (piano) / Simon Burgess (bass) / Sarah Hoskyns (mandolin)
Nino Raphael (guitar) / Ukulele Ensemble
Opera House, Wellington
Friday, 21st September, 2012
Two years ago, I spent a rollicking, richly-conceived evening in the Town Hall with the Wellington Community Choir, on the occasion of its 5th birthday. This latest concert, in the very different surroundings of the Opera House had a separate and distinct buzz of its own, the contrast underlined by a photograph from that memorable, multi-layered 2010 event reproduced in this year’s programme.
This time round, the performing focus was less on diversity and more on specific repertoire, with two very different and captivating musical strands plucked and resonated for our great enjoyment. We had a “Pasifika” first half, put together under the title “Songs from Oceania”, and then a distinctly “Northern Hemisphere” second half, courtesy of that redoubtable duo Flanders and Swann – with one exception, not the well-known “At the Drop of a Hat” items, but songs from a less-known collection “The Bestiary of Flanders and Swann”.
One registered that, even before the singers took the stage the Opera House atmosphere had created something rather more theatrical than in 2010, aided by back-lighting and a proscenium arch “framing the magic” as it were. But just as strong was the community aspect of it all – as the singers and instrumentalists came on their audience connections were underlined by shouts and waves of greeting, bringing stage and auditorium cheek-by-jowl, as it were. So, we had the best of both worlds by the time conductors Julian Raphael and Carol Shortis made their appearance.
The first song, from Tonga, Malimali Mai, had one of those rhythmic trajectories that has the effect of catching up up whole bunches of people in some kind of mesmeric spell, and getting them to move, think, act as one. The choir sang with plenty of gesturings, and conductor Julian Raphael invited us audience members to clap the rhythms – so we were involved from the outset. Various members of the choir introduced each item during the first half, which heightened the sense of “performer ownership” of the proceedings.
The opening item from Tonga had occasioned a lighting backdrop of the most delicious mango-like hues, underlining the sweetness and warmth of the song’s “place” in our minds. For two songs from Samoa which followed, the intense blue of the sea was emphasized instead; while the songs, firstly Falealili Uma, and then Fa’afetai I le Atua featured richly-harmonised repeated refrains, the second in particular real a cappella stuff. The NZ Maori Wairua o te puna Aroha which followed brought in a strong instrumental beat, and a pronounced swaying motion from the choir, underlining a sense of one people moving in accord.
An old favorite was The Wellerman, an early New Zealand whaler’s song, describing struggles between man and beast relieved occasionally by the “Wellerman” with fresh supplies for the whalers. Here I thought the song’s tessitura too low for the men’s voices to be able to clearly enunciate the tale, compounded by a tempo that was too fast for those same singers – as well as clarity, something of both the melancholy and the drudgery of the whalers’ situation wasn’t for me put across strongly enough. More securely grounded in effect was a New Zealand Lullaby from a slightly later period, early in the 1800s, apparently composed as a joint venture by two women, Maori and Pakeha, its attractive, faintly exotic melodic line accentuated in a Russian-sounding direction by the balalaika-like ukulele accompaniment!
I had to get my atlas out to find Boigu Island – its song Waiye here sounded suitably “ethnic”, which wasn’t surprising considering the island’s proximity to the Papua-New Guinean mainland – instrumentalists gathered around two impressive-looking and -sounding drums which punctuated the ends of the song’s phrases in fine style. The singing had that peculiary “open-throat” sound one associates with Polynesian cultures, slightly raw and very exciting, the men’s lines harmonizing with those of the women’s. More westernized, though still with exotic elements such as rhythmic chanting, was the Australian Soul Wind, the melody line and harmonizing very bluesy in places. Both of these were conducted, spaciously and most expressively, by Carol Shortis.
Two contrasting “Pasifika” items concluded the half, the first Tagi Sina, from Tokelau, dramatic and mournful, with a heavy rhythmic drumbeat underpinning the women’s plaintive melodic line, and the feeling of a whole community expressing sorrow taking up the whole company, the whole intensifying then concluding with a resounding crash. A perfect foil to it all was the concluding Sipaio from Niue, introduced as “Happiness”, with open, long-breathed melodies, accompanied by exuberant hands-and-arms movements suggesting joyful overflowing of feelings. The “tropical” lighting of the very first item returned as well to bring things to a kind of full circle.
From largely oceanic climes and vistas, we were taken by the concert’s second half to different worlds inhabited by non-human creatures, courtesy of one of the greatest musical comedy duos of them all, Michael Flanders and Donald Swann. World-famous for their “At the Drop of a(nother) Hat” shows” they also created a collection, “The Bestiary of Flanders and Swann”, less popular, but just as high in literary and musical values. We were given eight of these, five arranged by Julian Raphael for choir, and three sung as either solos or duos by Julian, Carol Shortis and a character called Lambton, who was also the “compere” for the second half, in which role I thought he often became tiresomely wordy, his humour mostly of the heavy-handed W.S.Gilbert variety. Fortunately he was able to redeem himself with a spirited solo performance of “The Rhinoceros”.
Julian Raphael’s similar turn for “The Elephant”, augmented with a pair of elephant ears, brought out all the droll humor of the words concerning a pachyderm who has lost his memory, to the audience’s delight – while his “Warthog” duo with Carol Shortis gave both performers and their audience plenty of fun at the tale of Warthog Wallflower’s neglect at a party, until the arrival of Mr Right Warthog saved the day.
The rest of the songs featured the choir, supported by some superb piano-playing from Diedre Irons, the “guest accompanist” for the evening (occasionally doing a “Donald Swann” and adding an extra voice to those in the choir). The Whale sang and sneezed its way through Seas Antarctical, while the choir, although resisting the temptation to sing while standing on their hands, still evoked the world of the Sloth with words like, “The world is such a cheerful place /when viewed from upside-down / It makes a rise of every fall; a smile of every frown.” Other wonderful rhyming couplets came in the song “The Armadillo”, in the wake of the unfortunate creature falling in love with an armoured car- “I left him to his singing / cycled home without a pause / never tell a man the truth /about the one that he adores…” music filled with droll, regimented rhythms and ironic gentleness, soft-hearted beneath the armour-plating!
As happened with every one of the actual Flanders-and-Swann concerts, the show’s climax came with the concerted singing of the “Mud, mud, Glorious mud!” chorus from “The Hippopotamus”, a ritualized celebration, indeed. Though there was an encore song with audience participation, called “Midnight makes up its own mind”, our hearts and sensibilities mostly stayed with the Hippopotami on the banks of the cool Shalimar, taking the song and the other spirited evening performances from choir, pianist and conductor happily with us with us out into the evening air.