COLOURS OF FUTUNA – Concert Series
Gale Force Gospel Choir
Carol Shortis (conductor)
Friend St., Karori
Sunday 4th November, 2012
In a world where hype of all kinds relating to every sphere of activity seems to be piped into our houses with our drinking water, it’s refreshing (ha!) to encounter publicity for an event that turns out to be nothing but gospel truth – announcing this concert by the Gale Force Gospel Choir at Karori’s Futuna Chapel, the blurb read, “……a non-stop blast of foot-stompin’ mad-clappin’ gospel classics that will have you joining in before you know it..” Exactly so, and in the interests of maximum impact I could dramatize further by announcing that I was “throwing down my cyper-pen because that was all that needed to be said!”.
However, such was the pleasure afforded by this cheek-by-jowl experience, It’s entirely fitting that I relive a few impressions in order to bask in the resonance of the occasion a little more, and perhaps encourage those who didn’t attend to seek out any subsequent occasions at which this group is performing and get similarly caught up with it all.
One of the things that gave the concert real distinction was the venue. Futuna Chapel, situated in Karori, was known to me from times past in an entirely different context, as a place of worship and spiritual retreat. My own experience was a “once-been-there-never forgotten” three-day residence while a callow, 1960s schoolboy, at what I thought at the time was this (still) magnificent place. The chapel, designed by the architect John Scott, and acclaimed in its day and since, has fortunately survived the ravages of time and greed intact, and is now available for our pleasure as a concert venue. The building enjoys protection as a Category 1 Historic Site, but the once-beautiful surroundings, which incorporated a good deal of native bush, have unfortunately been taken over and, for me, besmirched by “development” of the usual rapacious kind we’ve unfortunately come to expect these days. One gets an impression of individual housing units mercilessly jammed together for what imagines would have been maximum financial return for the developers.
Inside the chapel one is fortunately able to leave behind any such temporal preoccupations, and allow oneself to be transported into another world, in which light and colour play an integral part. I thought that the space seemed one in which almost any chamber-like performance of anything would bloom, through taking on the air, space and light of the ambience. Its character seemed at once abstract and personable, austere and warm. We could as well have gathered waiting for a string quartet to emerge to give us a performance of Bach’s “The Art of Fugue”, or for an actor to take the stage and read to us TS Eliot’s Four Quartets, as much as welcome the performers of the Gospel Songs we were expecting.
To begin the program conductor Carol Shortis brought different sections of her choir into the space antiphonally, making for a “surround” effect which enclosed us in a continually-changing sea of sound-hues, caused by the different harmonic strands keeping on the move until the altar-steps were reached. The choir’s singing of Way By and By while congregating on these steps, plus the backdrop of colour as the sun activated the stained-glass windows made a wonderful show of sight and sound.
All of the songs were taught to the group by Auckland composer and arranger Tony Backhouse, whose deployment of the rhythms and harmonic strands among parts of the group made for ear-catching effects in places. Carol Shortis welcomed us to the concert before setting the following I’m Glad to be in the Service, a song with real Gospel swing, one whose beautifully-harmonised control was allied to the kind of spontaneous outpouring of energy which made it sound as though its performers were truly imbued with the “spirit”, and , at the song’s end, unwilling to let go. An old slave-song Steal Away was no less heartfelt, the first unison note flowering into closely-knit harmonies, and opening into an almost militant middle section with the words “My Lord, He calls me on the Thunder”. Only slight lapses of tuning towards the softly-sung ending served to demonstrate to us the difficulty of some of this repertoire.
Keep so busy praisin’ my Jesus was begin by the men’s voices, the women lifting the song harmonically upwards to exciting effect, with plenty of dynamic variation in places like “If I don’t praise Him the rock’s gonna cry out!”. I’ve been in the Storm too long was another slave song, this one harmonically adventurous to the point of discomfiture in places, with disconcerting key-shifts capturing some of the raw desperation of the slaves’ plight. Some relief was afforded us with Ezekiel saw a Wheel, the tenors enjoying their downward glissandi on the word “Wheel”, and also with the following Joshua fit the Battle of Jericho, a song which dynamically ranged from opening whispers to great maestoso-like utterances, and a spectacular chromatic descent on the final “down”.
The catchy “ba-dum – ba-dum” rhythms of That’s All Right used an arrangement by Stephen Taberner, a Melbourne-based Kiwi choirleader, one which nicely varied the “dynamics” of interaction between the different voices. More wayward was Nobody’s Fault But Mine, the concert’s final listed item, and one that featured three solo voices from the choir, the first of which was particularly outstanding, confident, true-toned and stylish! To our delight, we were treated to a brief reprise of this first voice at the end, a solo line answered by the full choir. In between times there were lines, counter-lines, clapping and minimalist-like repetitions, the rhythmic and melodic patternings of which seemed to move everybody’s spirit as one – then, to finish the concert Carol Shortis taught us, the audience, some of the patterns of the very first song, Way BY and By, so we could then join in with the choir’s encore – it was a great way to finish the concert and sent us all babbling happily out into the sunlight, thoroughly energized by what we’d heard – Gospel truth!