Capital Choir – joys and travails through Solstice and Winter

The Capital Choir presents:
Sing the Measure of Solstice and Winter

A Selection of New Zealand Songs
Felicia Edgecombe (director) / Belinda Behle (piano)

Soloists (Beethoven):
Belinda Behle (soprano) / Ruth Armishaw (alto)
Chris Berentson (tenor) / Rhys Cocker (bass)

Janet Gibbs (organ)

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Hill Street,

Sunday 7th July 2013

There’s such a lot of pleasure to be had in singing, and especially if one is musical but doesn’t perhaps command any experience or great expertise on an instrument other than the voice.

And for people like myself who can hear music and enjoy it but would seriously baulk at the thought of making individually-exposed sounds themeslves, there’s safety in numbers in the shape and form of membership of a choir.

Recalling my own short-lived but enjoyable experience as a choir member, I’m sure I would have liked singing with this group in repertoire such as we heard throughout the first half of this concert – a collection of songs, some of them written by the choir’s own director, Felicia Edgecombe, and in one instance with the words written by another choir member, author and poet, Rachel McAlpine.

These were, for the most part, simply-conceived songs, featuring a good deal of strong, well-focused unison sounds, with some differentiation between men’s and women’s voices and enough angularities in the lines (plus the occasional harmony) to pose sufficient of a challenge.

I fancy I would also have appreciated the focused, but always flexible direction of the group’s director, Felicia Edgecombe, being made to feel secure and well-rounded in matters of breathing and phrasing by following her visual example.

And as an intensely private pianist myself, I particularly relished the songs’ piano accompaniments, each sounding so beautifully modulated and flexibly phrased (oh, to be able to play like that!) by Belinda Behle – whose name I couldn’t at first see anywhere in the program relating to the first half of the concert, but whose identity was revealed when I saw she was the soprano soloist in the Beethoven Mass as well! – she is, I believe, the choir’s regular accompanist.

I imagine it would have been a source of pride to have sung those items written especially for the choir by Felicia Edgecombe – the “Nation Prayer”, a kind of New Zealand ballad, a lovely setting of a gorgeous Gerard Manly Hopkins poem, complete with a final, affirming “Praise Him!”, and a setting of a poem “Once in a While” by Brian Turner, which featured the choir’s bass voices steadfastly holding their line throughout the first part.

Most interesting of these was, I thought, the setting of Rachel McAlpine’s lines throughout a work entitled “World”, words which the poet herself read before the performance. With bells pealing at the start, the women launched into the setting splendidly, then supported the men’s verse following – perhaps the voices didn’t quite have the “oomph” necessary to bring off the climax of the last verse, though the subsequent upward modulation seemed to give the choir more “heart”, and strengthen everybody’s resolve.

Part of the fascination of singing in a choir was, I remember, marvelling at the confidence and skill with which any soloists present would deliver their lines – so exposed, and yet so focused and purposeful. In this respect the Beethoven Mass would have been a real treat – four very different voices, beginning Beethoven’s “Kyrie” confidently, and shaping their lines throughout the “Gloria” with plenty of musicality.

In general, this was a performance of the Beethoven work by the choir that started strongly, but seemed to lose its choral focus as the work progressed. Throughout the Kyrie and Gloria, my notes contain comments such as “Women very strong – hold their lines well” and “Enthusiastic – a little strained, but nicely shaped” – and at one point where the accompanying organ unaccountably stopped, towards the end of the Gloria, the choir continued as if its life depended the outcome, holding its tone firm and its ensemble truly (I understand the organist was taken ill, hence the momentary lapse).

However, from the Credo on, the performance seemed in places under-parted – in particular, the men were often tentative-sounding, though lack of weight of numbers certainly contributed to the weak, non-upholstered body of choral sound in places.

By dint of having the most resplendent-sounding solo voices the alto Ruth Armishaw and bass Rhys Cocker were able to fill out their tones with ample variation of intensity and colour. Though plainer and more subdued by comparison the sweet-toned soprano of Belinda Behle and Chris Berentson’s true-voiced tenor managed to maintain their respective lines and hold their own in ensemble passages, achieving an attractive blend in places. And towards the end of the Gloria,in that typically Beethovenian build-up of tensions, the singers seemed inspired, led by the soprano, keeping their lines steadfastly to the end.

I would have thundered as loudly as I could at the beginning of the Credo, had I been singing – I felt tempted to join in anyway, as there didn’t seem enough power in those voices at this point. It was left to our soloists to “focus” the music, which they did at “Et incarnatus est” – again both bass and alto shone during their respective solos, at  “Et resurrexit” and “Et in Spiritum Sanctum”  How amazingly like the Missa Solemnis  this music is in places – obviously a kind of preliminary run on the composer’s part!

I don’t think I would have liked to sing the Sanctus, much – all that chromatic writing! But I did wonder as to whether there had been sufficient rehearsal though these sequences, because they sounded to me as though they were being sight-read, here. Again, the soloists came to the rescue in the “Benedictus”, Ruth Armishaw in particular a tower of strength, despite the briefest of stumbling over an ending to “In Nomine Domine” – and, the final lines of the ensemble were simply heavenly!

The choir rallied itself for the final Agnus Dei, achieving the “cry of anguish” at the beginning,and establishing a coherent sense of ebb and flow through to the end. For me, the music had a wonderful kind of dark “Gothic” feeling about it in places, which the choir was able to sustain, and which the soloists were able to work their contrasting “Dona nobis pacem” passages against to good effect.

So – a mixed bag, with the warm, heartfelt choral singing throughout the first half and the work of the soloists during the Beethoven Mass the most notable features. Even the undernourished choral singing during parts of the Mass didn’t for me negate the work’s glory, so, all-in-all, I was grateful to have heard it done, this “little brother” of the great Missa Solemnis.







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