Festival Singers and Cantoris – Choirs for all Seasons

Festival Singers of Wellington and Cantoris Choir
Cloudburst – Celebrating the seasons

Musical Director: Brian O’Regan

Eric Whitacre – Alleluia
Brahms – Wie Lieblich sind deine wohnungen
John Tavener – The Lamb
John Rutter – For the Beauty of the Earth
King’s Singers –  I’m a train
Robert Applebaum – Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day
Moses Hogan – Elijah Rock
Morten Lauridsen – Sure on this Shining Night
Joshua Shank  Autumn
Eric Whitacre – Cloudburst
Ralph Vaughan Williams – The Cloud Capp’d Towers
R. Thompson – Stopping by woods on a snowy evening
Brahms – Waldesnacht
Chris Artley – O Magnum Mysterium 

St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Friday, 1st November 2013

This concert was a joint performance between Cantoris Choir and Festival Singers of Wellington, both of whom are directed by Brian O’Regan. The programme was built around Eric Whitacre’s iconic work “Cloudburst” as part of a journey through the seasons that featured choral works from different ages and genres.

Opening the evening was Moses Hogan’s Elijah Rock, a riveting Negro spiritual that ventures almost into rap territory. It was an ambitious first choice, but was carried off with total panache and technical command by the combined choirs, who immediately engaged the audience with their enthusiasm and polish. The following Cloud Capp’d Towers of Ralph Vaughan Williams was a total stylistic contrast, beautifully rendered, again by the joint choirs. How canny of Brian O’Regan to choose this pair of opening numbers– two genres that are just about as far apart as can be, yet each finishing on the note of meeting one’s Maker. In the spiritual the singers literally hurtle through the Pearly Gates, shouting “Comin’ up Lawdy, I’m comin’ up Lord”, while in the latter the voices fade away into nothingness as “our little life is rounded with a sleep”. Masterful programming………

The Festival Singers then presented a bracket of three numbers by Rutter, Artley and Lauridsen. With loving phrasing, dynamics, and exemplary balance between the voices, they beautifully conveyed the great mystery of the manger scene and a sense of wonder at the beauties of earth and sky. This theme was rounded out by a combined choir rendition of Brahms’ – Waldesnacht (Woodland night), regarded as one of the masterpieces of the Romantic choral repertoire. Its nuances were sympathetically delivered to convey the profound sense of peace and tranquility that Nature can provide as a balm for weary limbs exhausted by the “insane anguish” of everyday life.

Eric Whitacre’s Cloudburst was the central piece in the programme, and rightly so. It involved both choirs, piano, percussion band, and the seven players of the Tinakori Hand Bell Choir. This is an exciting work which uses a wide variety of vocal and instrumental effects to convey all the sound sensations experienced in a cloudburst– everything from the whispering pitter-patter of the first gentle raindrops to the auditory assault of a torrential downpour, complete with thunder from the band. The vocal writing is very percussive and instrumental in places, and the singers gave it their all to great effect. They formed an excellent ensemble with the instrumentalists that resulted in a highly evocative performance.

The combined male voices next presented R.Thompson’s setting of Robert Frost’s 1922 poem Stopping by woods on a snowy evening. The pianist, Jonathan Berkhan, and choristers together captured most evocatively its magical imagery of the rider stopping between the woods and a frozen lake on the darkest evening of the year. The expressive harmonies were beautifully balanced, and the diction quite the clearest and cleanest of the entire evening. Bravo gentlemen!

Joshua Shank’s Autumn, sung by the combined choirs,  explores a wonderful metaphor where the falling leaves of autumn represent that final descent we all must make. The singers made the most of the expressive dissonances and showed beautiful control, especially in the final lines And yet there is One/ Who holds this falling/ in his hands/ With infinite softness.

 The jaunty King’s Singers’ number I’m a train was a dramatic contrast, with its characteristic clever vocal effects, rhythms and wordless train soundtrack puffing energetically along. The singers were obviously having a ball, and demonstrated yet again their great versatility in switching between widely different genres.

Cantoris presented the next two numbers by Applebaum and Tavener. The setting of Shakespeare’s 18th sonnet eschews any hint of the saccharine, reflecting rather the devastation and heartache of Applebaum who wrote it to mark his daughter’s untimely death. The sometimes raw a cappella harmonies express the dark side of this wonderful poem, and they were movingly rendered by the singers. Tavener’s work was given an equally beautiful reading which tellingly captured the wide-eyed delight of a child talking to the lamb in its Softest clothing, woolly, bright.

The choirs combined again for the final two numbers, the first being Brahms’ How lovely are thy dwelling places from his German Requiem. This was sung with a piano reduction for accompaniment, a format I had never heard before. The singing was entirely competent, but the amputation of the orchestra had a devastating effect on the performance. Never can it be said that Brahms was here composing a vocal work with orchestral accompaniment. The two elements are never conceived separately, but are part of an intimate relationship which can no more be split asunder than can a pair of dancers. I believe that the stature of this masterful work must be respected and its exquisite music left intact, even at the cost of its being omitted from programmes where an orchestra is not available.

Eric Whitacre’s Alleluia is a far cry from the usual finale romp that this title often suggests. It is rather a subdued, contemplative work set for choir with male and female soloists. Those voices floated poetically through the choristers who in turn beautifully shaped their own interweaving melodies. The whole effect was one of peace and calm, and serene conclusion.

Festival Singers and Cantoris  are exceptionally fortunate to have found a director of Brian O’Regan’s experience and competence. He produced an exemplary concert that gave obvious pleasure to singers and audience alike, and I trust that Wellington can look forward to plenty more in the future.


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