Splendid operatic farewell to the Kapiti Chorale’s conductor Marie Brown

‘Hit and Myth’; choruses and arias from opera

The Kapiti Chorale, Marie Brown (conductor), Elisabeth Harris (mezzo), Christian Thurston (baritone), Salina Fisher (violin), Peter Averi (organ), Rafaella Garlick-Grice and Ellen Barrett (pianos)

St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Paraparaumu

Sunday, 18 August 2013, 2.30pm

Despite the rather corny title of the concert, the church was well-filled to hear the last concert to be conducted by Marie Brown, who is moving to Auckland, following eight years as Music Director  of the choir; she will be greatly missed.

A delightful mixture of arias and choruses from opera made up the fare: some items were well known, or ‘hits’, others less-known, while some were based on myths. While most of the choruses were sung in English, a number were not.

We began with ‘The Villagers’ Chorus’ from Guillaume Tell, by Rossini.  The first three items were all accompanied by Rafaelle Garlick-Grice in accomplished style, having always the right balance with the choir and soloists.  She is an accompanist at the New Zealand School of Music. The women’s sound was good; the men’s rather weak, but there was always an excellent range of dynamics.  Following this, conductor Marie Brown gave the first of a number of apt introductions to the items, not without humour, and playing on the terms ‘hit’ and ‘myth’ where possible.

‘Dido’s Lament’ from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas was the next item.  It lacked more than a little in sound quality and atmosphere by being played on the piano, but Elisabeth Harris sang with feeling, and a richer sound than I have previously heard from her, plus greater (though not total) accuracy of intonation.  Her voice was well suited to the church’s acoustic, but I was puzzled by the pronunciation of ‘trouble’ as ‘rubble’, and ‘remember me’ as ‘ruhmumber me’. The choir did not start completely together, but words were clear and expressive, and they produced a fine sound; again the gradation of dynamics was good.  The choir’s upper notes were weak at times.

Gounod’s operas, other than Faust, are not much performed now, but ‘O ma lyre immortelle’ from his Sapho proved a good vehicle for Harris.  Her rich lower tones were very fine.

Mascagnis’ ‘Intermezzo’ from his opera Cavalleria rusticana is one of those very famous pieces of music that everyone knows, though perhaps not all can place its source and composer.  It received highly proficient and loving playing from Salina Fisher, a violin student and prize-winner at NZSM, with Peter Averi on the organ.  Unfortunately, a digital organ is not an adequate substitute for the sounds of an orchestra, despite the excellence of the playing.

Back to the choir and Elisabeth Harris, for the Easter Hymn from the same opera, with both piano and organ.  It was a good, dramatic performance from both soloist and choir, but the latter’s vowels were somewhat too diverse for purity of tone.

Turning to French grand opera, better described in these programme notes than I have ever seen it, Christian Thurston, another NZSM student, who recently did well in the School’s opera Il Corsaro by Verdi, sang ‘Ô vin, dissipe la tristesse’ from Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas.  His voice is rich-toned, strong and hearty; accompanied by Rafaella Garlick-Grice, his rendition in excellent French was elegant .

A more familiar opera is Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.  With two pianos this time, the second played by the choir’s regular accompanist Ellen Barrett, the women of the choir sang (in English) the ‘Chorus of Peasant Girls’.  The tone was pleasant, and the singers gave a suitably playful rendition, while the wonderfully illustrative accompaniment was splendidly played by the unflagging Rafaella Garlick-Grice, beautifully co-ordinated with Ellen Barrett.

From the same opera was the famous waltz scene, again with two pianos.  Thurston sang Onegin, with the full choir.  The English words were clear, and the timing was excellent.  It is not easy to sing as an opera chorus, because phrases for the chorus come up here and there, so it is more difficult to get entries correct as compared with continuous singing in straight choral works.

Perhaps the best-known items from Bizet’s Carmen are the ‘Habanera’, and the ‘March of the Toreadors’.  The first of these was sung in French, with Rafaella Garlick-Grice accompanying and Elisabeth Harris taking the solo part. With French expert Marie Brown to teach them, the choir’s pronunciation was excellent, and the singers were ‘on the ball’, to make this an excellent item.  The soloist, now in a red dress, moving forward from the back of the church, singing from memory, made the most of the seductive, Spanish-style music, with movement and facial expression.

Two pianos accompanied the March, sung in English. The choir’s rhythm was first-class, if the pitch was occasionally suspect.  There was some strain in the tenor voices, but the piece was generally secure and accurate, with plenty of volume when required.

Christian Thurston returned to sing a less-well-known number, ‘Questo amor, vergogna mia’ from Puccini’s Edgar.  He made a fine and beautiful operatic sound.

Elisabeth Harris then gave us ‘Nobles Seigneurs, salut’ from Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots.  This was a very accomplished performance of a difficult aria, not known to me.  The ornamentation was handled with assurance and accuracy, and her French language was excellent.

Something else French: the beautiful ‘Méditation’ from Thaïs, by Massenet played on the violin by Salina Fisher, accompanied by Rafaella Garlick-Grice.  It was superbly played, with sensitivity.  Sadly, the upright piano was somewhat limited in tonal variety in its ‘orchestral’ supporting role.

Now to Verdi: ‘O don fatale’ from Don Carlos, sung by Harris, in Italian, with feeling, and impressive expression and dramatic verve.  Top notes were absolutely in place.  The audience responded with particular enthusiasm to this very passionate aria.

The final three items were more familiar; firstly, the ‘Voyagers’ Chorus’ from Idomeneo by Mozart, for choir and mezzo, sung in Italian, in which I thought the singers seemed to be tiring a little.  This was
followed by the famous Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor by Borodin, where we again had two pianos and an English text.  Top notes from the sopranos were weak, as were some alto notes.  However, the forte section was very accurate and lively, though most words were unclear.  The co-ordination of the pianists was remarkable.

That much loved chorus from Verdi’s Nabucco, ‘Va pensiero’, rounded off the programme, sung in Italian with both accompanists, and a brief appearance from Christian Thurston.  The chorus’s smooth
lines made a rousing end to ‘Hit and Myth’.

Peter Averi then made a short speech, thanking Marie Brown for her work and her huge inspiration to the choir and those associated with it.

The concert of excerpts from opera reached a commendable level of performance, and was much appreciated by the audience.  This was a demanding programme, but all the singers were very involved in what they were singing, and they involved their audience also.


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