Adventurous performances of testing and witty music by a dead composer

A Mews Celebration, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the death of Dr Douglas K. Mews 
Music by or arranged by Dr Douglas K Mews
Bach Choir, conducted by Douglas Mews, with Eleanor Carter, cello

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday, 28 April 2013 5pm

Dr Douglas K. Mews was Associate Professor of Music at theUniversityofAucklandfrom 1974 until his retirement in 1984.  He was also Director of Music at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Auckland from 1970 to 1982.

He was a composer, and a lively, instructive and entertaining broadcaster on what was then the Concert Programme, his soft Newfoundland accent being very easy to listen to.

There is a complaint that the general view is that ‘the only good composers are dead ones’, in terms of programming and public appreciation, in New Zealand we seem almost to have the reverse view: contemporary composers such as Anthony Ritchie, David Hamilton and Gareth Farr are frequently performed, less so dead composers.  I  do not imply that those named should not be performed – of course they should.  But, apart from the Dominion String Quartet’s exemplary promotion of Alfred Hill, there is not enough music heard from our past.

The concert began with two motets and a mass.  First, ‘A sound came from heaven’, which has been heard from the National Youth Choir of New Zealand. Unaccompanied, as were all the items in the first half of the concert, it proceeded well – a very effective piece and performance, aside from the lack of unanimity on the opening note.  The final sentence, ‘Come, O Holy Spirit’ suffered the same fate as the beginning.

The Mass’s opening, ‘Lord have mercy’ had a much better unison start. The setting interspersed Latin with English.  ‘Gloria’, was highly musical, varied and enjoyable.  The section beginning ‘For you alone are the Holy One’ was positively jolly in its setting.

‘An Introit of Beatitudes’ followed.  Here, particularly, was Douglas Mews’s fine and inspiring word-setting, the music following the natural speech rhythms.  Plainsong basis it might have had, but there were lovely harmonies, as well as much unison singing – always difficult, as the tenors found, introducing extra notes, and not sustaining repeated notes on pitch.

‘Holy, Holy’ was loud and joyful.  While the music was largely in an English tradition, it was not reminiscent of any other composer. It was complex in places, with cross-rhythms and crossings of vocal parts.

From unaccompanied voices to unaccompanied cello: Eleanor Carter, now a member of the NZSO (and Wellingtonorganist), was a student of Professor Mews at AucklandUniversity.  She played Five Melodies of Passion and Dispassion.  The first piece began with a big sound.  It was interesting to hear how resonant the solo cello was in St. Andrew’s. 

The piece suggested anguish, concern, anxiety, and ended with pizzicato, but no feeling of resolution.  The next piece was soft and mellow, in the form of question and answer between treble phrases and bass ones.  This questioning continued through much of the piece, followed by a more affirmative section, with a question at the end.

The third part began with some rough stuff – many short notes, and a querulous, even cross, argumentative tone.  One could almost hear words in this conversation, especially the expletive at the end.

Piece number four was all calmness again (dispassion?), with long sustained notes.  It seemed to be the calm of resignation rather than of happy repose.  Gentle pizzicato preceded a solemn ending. 

The final piece began with rapid pizzicato, then turned to powerful passion.  These features alternated, incorporating anguished outbursts.  There were cries from both extremes of the instrument’s range, and running pizzicato before an ending which incorporated the opening phrase of Saint-Saëns’ ‘Swan’ from The Carnival of the Animals – perhaps the most well-known cello solo there is.

The second half began with settings of two poems by Karol Wojtyla, who became Pope John Paul II.  He worked in a quarry during the Nazi occupation of Poland, and wrote a cycle of poems entitled The Quarry; we heard them in English translation. 

The first “Hands….. are a landscape” began in unison (again, the pitch was a little wayward) then went into close harmony.  The words about the physical effects of labour included “shoulders and veins vaulted” at which point the music had a vaulted sound: multi-part writing, as the words are “For a moment he is in a Gothic building”.  These and other words were first spoken and then sung.  At the final line “Some hands are for toil, some for the cross”, the interval of a second was held well, with a low bass ending. 

Eleanor Carter played percussion in these songs – large stones at two different pitches, used sparingly.  This was most telling at the end of the first song, where they doubtless represented the hammering of nails into a cross.

The second song, ‘In memory of a fellow-worker’, used not only the stones, but also two different bells, which chimed three times at appropriate intervals.  The setting featured sprechstimme, a cross between speaking and singing, and some awkward intervals, all of which were managed well.  The men were accurate and characterful on the whole.  Angular phrases contrasted with legato ones.  The whole was wrought, and performed, with sombre effect.

Douglas Mews played his father’s Sesqui Suite for solo piano (no prizes for guessing the year in which it was written) of three sections: ‘Auckland Awakening’, in which bass notes intoned, with a gentle phrase at the top of the treble that gradually opened out to a mainly quiet awakening; ‘Auckland Awhiowhio’, in which the spritely wind (no, that’s not a misspelling) was all over the place – will-o’-the-wisp, some of it very high at the top of Mt. Eden, other gusts at ground level; ‘Auckland Awash’ with a surging sea, featuring ripples and crashes of waves.  This was scene-painting, impressionistic music.  It was played with great accomplishment and sensitivity to the varying moods and subtleties.   

The lighter part of the programme began with an original Mews setting of Lear’s well-known ‘The Owl and the Pussy-cat’.  More delightful word-painting, especially the spoken “Dear Pig, are you willing…” followed by a high squeak “I will”.  The choir demonstrated precision and good tone.

Arrangements followed: of Simon and Garfunkel’s version of ‘Scarborough Fair’; where the men lost pitch to some extent; the spiritual ‘Little David’, which featured a semi-chorus of sopranos, and excellent contrast in dynamics.

Finally, arrangements of three Maori songs: ‘Hoki hoki’ (which I always find a tear-jerker), ‘Akoako o Te Rangi’, which began effectively with men and altos humming while sopranos sang the melody line, and finally that most often sung song, ‘Pokarekare ana’.  This was a superb arrangement beautifully sung, with good consistency of pronunciation, despite the pitch dropping.

This was evocative music and both entrancing and interesting to hear.  Some of it should certainly be heard more often.  The range of genres of music and of invention was impressive; the whole was a magnificent tribute to an importantNew Zealandcomposer.  For the choir’s part, there was much that was difficult without the support of accompaniment, and all members acquitted themselves well.



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