Futuna Chapel and Alliance Française inspire an attractive French women’s choir

‘Beau Soir’: a programme of French and New Zealand music and poems

L’Alliance Française Women’s Choir: Voix de femmes, Janey MacKenzie (piano and voice), Madeleine Dean (poetry reading), Brigid O’Meeghan (cello), Julie Coulson (piano and choir), Marie Brown (conductor)

Futuna Chapel, Karori

Friday 2 November 2012, 6.30pm

O Futuna!  But this concert was not Orff in any sense of the word.  Despite comparatively little publicity that I was aware of, the chapel, its coloured glass radiating beautifully onto the concrete walls as the sun shone intermittently, was full.  The choir of 14 singers (unnamed), and others, gratified the audience with a varied range of music.

A variety of French music was to be expected; the introduction of a couple of New Zealand compositions was an added bonus.

The concert, the choir’s second only since its formation, began with Fauré; first a hymn, Maria, Mater gratiae, which was followed by a short mass: Messe des pêcheurs de Villerville.  This was written, so Marie Brown told us in one of her clear and excellent introductions, with André Messager, Fauré’s friend and former pupil, with whom he collaborated on other works.  They wrote it to raise money for a charitable purpose, while on holiday in 1881.  It appears that there were several versions of this mass, which is titled Messe basse in Grove.  The first version calls for a harmonium, while the last is set for organ accompaniment, without the movements by Messager.  Perhaps the electronic organ in the chapel is not functional; the accompaniment we heard was on digital piano.

The choir made a very good sound and produced a pure tone, but the acoustic at Futuna shows up even slight lapses of intonation, of which there were a number in the hymn; the mass fared better.  The words were very clear and precise – although a little more care is needed in the pronunciation of the back ‘e’, as in ‘Christe eleison’.

There was a beautiful blend of voices, especially in the lower-pitched sections.  Unison sections were unanimous.  The ‘O salutaris’ movement was particularly beautiful, and there was a nice variety of styles between the movements, both in their composition and in how they were performed.

A Baudelaire poem was recited next: Élévation.  The English translation was printed, with that of the other poem, on a separate sheet.  It was read deliciously by Madeleine Dean, who stepped in at very short notice when the original reader became ill.  The translation guided non-speakers of French through beautiful English to the idea of the elevated soul soaring above the sorrows and pollutants of life.

Two Debussy songs followed.  The French words of one and the translations of both were printed in the main programme.  However, 8 point font is really too small to read in the semi-dark; it would have been preferable to have had a full A4 programme, as some Wellington choirs customarily do, rather than half that size, especially when the type of paper used did not show up that size of print well.

The songs are normally solo songs: Beau soir, with words by P. Bourget, and Nuit d’étoiles, words by Banville.  However, they were sung very effectively by the choir,  with perfect intonation.  The ending of the first song, in close harmony, was quite beautiful. Debussy’s use of language is just superb, and the fabulous accompaniments plus the gentle dynamics from the choir demonstrated what a wonderful composer he was.  He knew how to write for choirs, though he is not generally thought of as a choral composer.  The lower voices produced superb tone, while the sopranos were generally good, but occasionally shrill in this acoustic.

Marie Brown said some interesting words about the history of the chapel, then Madeleine Dean read the poem Le cynge by René-François Sully-Prudhomme.  Again, it was a very fine reading, the image of the swan’s characteristics and movements exquisitely described and his environment evoked.  It was appropriately followed by Brigid O’Meeghan playing the very well-known cello solo of the same name from Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals, accompanied by Julie Coulson.  It was a sonorous and lovely performance.

Berlioz was the next French composer, with two of the gorgeous songs from Nuits d’été: ‘Villanelle’ and ‘Le spectre de la rose’.  I have to confess that, though I have loved these songs for years, I don’t recall previously reading the translated words carefully.  By the prominent French poet Théophile Gautier (the title inspired by Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream), the poems are full of almost self-indulgent expressions of love.  Janey MacKenzie sang them, accompanied by Julie Coulson.  Although they were Berlioz’s own settings for piano (as opposed to his full orchestra version) I have to say that the digital piano did not provide enough timbre or resonance for these luscious songs.

The second one worked better in this building, being mainly lower in pitch.  The higher notes tended to become shrill here.  Berlioz’s sublime music needs perhaps more sensuous treatment from the singer as well as from the instrument, but nevertheless it was most ably performed.  It was a high note on which to end the French section of the programme.

Now to Nouvelle-Zélande: first, to Craig Utting, in Monument, a setting of a poem by Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, about the sort of weather we’ve had over these few days.  The piece began with the choir singing in unison, then dividing into parts.  The music had a grand and surging effect, as befitted a storm, before subsiding to a gentler choral sound, even as we could hear the northerly wind whistling around the chapel, and making its roof creak and groan.

Also about weather, but in a totally different style was Arlen and Koehler’s Stormy Weather.  Its bluesy rhythm and harmonies were amply projected, and the tone at the finish was delectable.

David Childs, formerly a church musician in Nelson and Christchurch but now resident in the United States, blended the New Zealand and French interests of the programme, with his Les Béatitudes.  An effective work, it incorporated interesting choral writing.  The French language was set extremely well.  One could have assumed the composer to be French if the programme had not told us differently.

The final item was John Rutter’s setting of A Gaelic Blessing.  This piece sounded a little less secure than did the rest of the programme, at the beginning, and there were a few less than unanimous endings to phrases towards the end.

Overall, it was a most enjoyable programme presented by very competent performers, who delivered the interesting music and readings with excellent French pronunciation.


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