Big Sing for a big occasion

Wellington Regional Big Sing Gala Concert (New Zealand Choral Federation Secondary Schools’ Choir Festivals)

Wellington Town Hall

Thursday, 6 June 2013

More choirs from the region performed in the two gala concerts this year: 42 choirs from 22 schools; last year thirty choirs from nineteen schools performed.  It is marvellous to find so many young people taking part in choirs and obviously enjoying it, and that some have student conductors and accompanists.  The fact that all the choirs learnt all their pieces by heart is staggering to us mere adults who sing in choirs, to whom this is an almost overwhelming difficulty.  An excellent effect of memorisation is that for the most part, words come over clearly – not always the case when singers are constantly glancing down at printed copies.   Every eye here was on the conductors – except for those few choirs who were able to perform without anyone standing in front of them to direct things.

Another factor in the success of the evening (the second of two gala concerts) was the excitement in the hall and the large, enthusiastic audience.

Unlike the protocol for the National Finale (to be held in a couple of months’ time), the judges do not choose the item to be sung by each choir at the regional finale, from the three items presented in the daytime sessions.  The result for the regional finale is that the majority of the choirs choose modern popular items, rather than those that might be classified by the rather unsatisfactory title of ‘classical’ or ‘serious’ music.

Neither of these terms should be taken to be totally descriptive; there is much good choral music being composed right now, and over the past 40 years, including by Bob Chilcott, John Rutter, and New Zealanders David Hamilton, Anthony Ritchie, Gareth Farr and others – and some of this was represented in the choices made.  So much of this is neither classical nor serious, but it is broadly in the Western music tradition, and not part of the popular repertoire.

I do not feel equipped with the experience to judge the relative merits of the pieces of popular repertoire chosen by the choirs.  I do know that I found the best choral singing to be mainly in those few pieces of ‘classical’ repertoire that were performed.  One problem with quite a number of the popular pieces was that they sat low in the voices.  It is not easy for young singers to project notes at the bottom of their registers, nor does it make great listening, because the tone is not as pleasing as it would be in music set higher.  Suitability of the music for the range of the performers’ voices would surely be one of the criteria considered by adjudicators.  This is not to say that the voices were not well-trained; for the most part they were.

Tawa College’s Dawn Chorus, a very large choir, opened the programme.  The criticism about the pitch level of the piece chosen certainly applied in this case.  The song ‘Fix You’ was accompanied by electric guitar, which couldn’t be heard by the upstairs audience, and electronic keyboard, which came over as a buzzing noise.

The next Tawa College choir, Harmony with Spirit (girls only) chose a piece that was also too low (‘Jesus, what a beautiful name’).  The style of the song, and of the solo, I found unappealing.  The other choir from Tawa College, Blue Notes, was very skilled.  ‘Hide and Seek’ by Imogen Heap was quite an intricate piece, and was sung with great control and excellent effect – though it, too, started very low in the voices.

Heretaunga College’s choir knew the words of ‘Sellotape’ and sang pretty well, but they did not project the story of the song to the audience – it was all a bit reticent.

Beethoven would have had a shock at the pop version of ‘Joyful, joyful’ based on the final movement of his ninth symphony, sung by Wellington East Girls’ College Multi Choir.  Conducted and accompanied by students, it began as a rather slow rendition of the choral part of that work, but it became a rap and pop version, with a Pasifika slant.

The Senior Choir from the same school produced another low-voice number: ‘Forget You’ by Bruno Mars.  A student conductor led the choir, and teacher (Brent Stewart) and students provided a three-piece instrumental backing.

Palmerston North Boys’ High School’s OK Chorale has always done well at The Big Sing.  The 16 voices produced accompanying noises as well as singing, in ‘You Oughta be in Love’ by Dave Dobbyn, in a special arrangement.  The solo was a little disappointing, but rhythm and expression were strong.

Samuel Marsden Collegiate’s Senior Chamber Choir sang a piece by New Zealander Craig Utting: ‘Monument’, from a set of songs, the words by Alistair Campbell.  This was partly accompanied, partly unaccompanied.  Good tone in this very effective setting was a little spoiled by wobbly intonation in places.  The piece certainly deserves being taken up widely; being for treble voices only, there should be plenty of opportunity for this.

The same school’s Ad Summa Chorale, a student-led choir, performed Adiemus by Karl Jenkins.  I have to confess I usually find this composer’s music somewhat trite, and so it was on this occasion.  The singing was perfectly adequate

Next came one of the evening’s high points: Wellington College and Wellington Girls’ College Combined Choir sang Fauré’s beautiful Cantique de Jean Racine, with organ.  This was a good effort.  The singing had clarity and was expressive, the voices at the top being particularly fine.

Another work with organ, played by Michael Fletcher, followed after the interval, from the same school’s huge Teal choir.  The Kyrie from Missa St. Aloysii by Michael Haydn would not have been easy to memorise.  Pitch was not always spot on, but overall, the choir did well.

Nicola Sutherland had a busy time directing four choirs all together this time from the piano.  The Year 9 Choir from the same school sang ‘If I only had a Brain’, which included a lot of actions (as indeed did a number of other items in the programme).  There was not the same level of projection from this choir.  The last choir from Wellington Girls’ College, Teal Voices, sang Vivaldi’s ‘Domine Fili Unigenite’, from his Gloria.  It was performed with organ and cellist Paul Mitchell.  The pronunciation of the Latin words was better than that to be heard from many adult choirs, and the cohesion of the choir created a very pleasing performance.

Kapiti College’s choir sang a Cole Porter number, ‘Every Time we say Goodbye’; quite a difficult piece, but done well, with attractive sound and excellent intonation.

Marsden Collegiate, Whitby, was not really up to the standard of most of the other choirs.  Their ‘Arithmetic’ by Brooke Fraser had not only a student accompanist but also a student violinist.

Bernard’s Men from St. Bernard’s College produced a good body of sound, including a solo, in Ruru Karaitiana’s well-known ‘Blue Smoke’.  There were some small boys in the choir as well as tall seniors.  I couldn’t hear any soprano sounds, though the young boys were certainly opening and closing their mouths.  The whole was well-presented, though perhaps a little uncommitted.

An excellent choice for a junior choir was Sacred Heart’s ‘The African Medley’ arranged by Julian Raphael.  The student conductor (and another student on drums) gained exemplary projection from the choir.  The same school’s Senior Choir sang Gareth Farr’s ‘Tangi te kawekawea’.  The choir did not sound very secure – perhaps the work was too difficult for them.  Nor was the blend as good as most of the choirs demonstrated.

Two Wairarapa choirs combined as Viva Camerata: Rathkeale and St. Matthew’s Senior College.  They sang Steven Rapana’s arrangement of ‘Le Masina E’, a Polynesian piece, accompanied by a wooden drum and another percussion instrument made of a rolled up Island mat.  The choir began strongly after a solo invocation.  There was no conductor, yet the timing was excellent, as was the choral tone.  Along with actions, the singers had projection plus!

The final item was from St. Patrick’s College (town) and Chilton St. James combined choir, PatChWork.  This was a case of keeping the best till last.  New Zealander Chris Artley has composed a number of choral pieces, and ‘I will lift up mine eyes’ was an outstanding one, set for choir, organ (played by Janet Gibbs) and trumpet.  Again parts of the piece were a little low for young voices, but the whole performance was projected well, and performed with unity and precision of words.  For me, it was the highlight of the evening, not least for the wonderful trumpet playing of a student from Chilton St. James.

Preceding the award of certificates to every  participating choir, the adjucator, Nick Richardson from Auckland spoke briefly, urging the participants to carry on singing when they leave school.  Yet the style of much of the music performed would not necessarily lead to this.  Some might form pop or rock groups perhaps.  Then there are Barbershop and Sweet Adeline groups.  Most youth and adult choirs do not sing the repertoire we heard; most of them perform what could loosely be called ‘classical’ repertoire, though they may include lighter items.

Various cups and awards were presented – too many to enumerate here.  They will doubtless be listed on The Big Sing’s website.  Suffice to say that PatChWork won the award for best performance of a New Zealand composition.


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