Unusual, enterprising concert centring on Britten and Helen Webby’s harp

‘Alleluia: a newë work!’  The Ceremony of Birth and Death

Baroque Voices (women only) directed by Pepe Becker; Helen Webby (harp)

Sacred Heart Cathedral

Saturday 16 November 2013, 8pm

Sixth in a series of concerts celebrating universal themes, the concert featured Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, celebrating the composer’s centenary year.  It was split into two, to open and close the performance. Between these two parts were no fewer than seven specially commissioned works for voices and harp – how unusual and enterprising!  I don’t suppose I have ever before been to a concert comprising entirely music accompanied by harp.

The  chant ‘Hodie Christus natus est’ was intoned unaccompanied by the choir of six women slowly moving from the back of the church to the front; the reverse process was undertaken for the repeat of the ‘Hodie’ at the end of the concert.  Then Helen Webby began the delicious music of ‘Wolcum Yole’, in which Britten, in his late twenties, revealed his extraordinary talent at word setting.  In a completely different mood was ‘There is no rose’; such a beautiful setting, that ended with a lovely decrescendo to pianissimo.  The interesting harp parts could in no way be considered mere accompaniment.  Here, as throughout the concert, Helen Webby exhibited her astonishing skill and talent as a harpist.

A notable feature of the performances was that all the words were in Middle English spellings, in which the singers were so well schooled, that the vowels were absolutely unanimous.  This was particularly notable in the song ‘Balulalow’, where most of the words differed from their modern equivalents in spelling, pronunciation, or both.  The words of all the songs were printed in the programme, adding to the audience’s ability to enjoy what was being performed.

The final song in this part of Britten’s work, ‘As dew in Aprille’, is well-known in several versions, but Britten’s was very unlike these.  The singers made errors towards the end, so stopped and started again, rendering the piece faultlessly this time.  The hugely varied harp part was absolutely pleasing and delightful.

The first of the commissioned works, Songs of Thomas Moore, consisted of settings of poems by that poet and songwriter (1779-1852), by Carol Shortis.   The first, ‘Ode LXIII’ was a short but effective composition, especially in the voice parts (one voice to a part).  Next came, appropriately, ‘The Origin of the Harp’, that epitomised the harp as a Siren, and told her sad tale of lost love.  This was a more complex composition.  The choir’s parts were fairly regular in rhythm and metre; the words were set expertly.  The harp’s part was charming.

‘Child’s Song from a Masque’ was the third and last song, and was also very appealing.  The words, about the child’s garden, and her (?) fawn were universally clear.  Their more modern form made them easier to pick up – and it is easier for a small ensemble to convey words clearly than it is for a choir.  The rhythms of the poems were followed in the music – which is not always the case in contemporary settings.  Yet again, the setting for harp was very fine.

Now we came to the first of the poems especially written for the commissioned composition.

The poem, entitled Coverings was by Elena Poletti and the music by Anthony Ritchie.  Google informs me that Elena Poletti is a lecturer at the University of Otago, and thus a colleague of Anthony Ritchie’s.  It is a pity that the ample printed notes about the composers were not accompanied by notes about the poets, although some notes about the individual works contained information about them.

Therefore as well as commissioning composers, Baroque Voices has given an opportunity and encouragement to the writing of new poetry.

The idea of renewal was conveyed through words about a penguin moulting and gaining a new coat, and about trees waiting to gain new leaves. The singers’ parts were not as melodically interesting as some of the items in the concert, but there was a dramatic harp part.  The third verse, beginning ‘Trees stand stark against the storm,’ was more exciting, and skilfully written.

Uncertainty/Eternity (Demeter, Ursula, Buddha) brought together poems by Rilke and Ursula Bethell, and French words concerning Demeter, a French science project investigating ionospheric disturbances from seismic and volcanic activity.  These were coupled with the search by the goddess Demeter for her daughter Persephone.  The music for these pieces was by Glenda Keam, an Auckland composer moving to head the Department of Music at the University of Canterbury.

Hers was a much less traditional musical language than we had heard so far.  I found the setting of ‘Pause’ by Ursula Bethell very lovely.  The contrast between the high and the low voices was most effective, and gave a mysterious quality to the piece.  In these items the harp part was not so prominent.

Gareth Farr’s contribution was to set a poem by New Zealand/Venezuelan poet Desirée Gezentsvey, written in English but in the published version given a Spanish translation, which Farr chose to set because of the language’s more musical character.   La Próxima Vez (Next Time Around) used brief but expressive words.  There was some harsh tone from the singers in this one – they had already done a lot of singing, and the second half of the concert was still to come. However, there were some delightful and telling musical effects.  Here, too, there was often wide separation of the high and low voices.

Pepe Becker’s composition began the second half, after a minute of silence in memory of Felicity Smith, who had sung with Baroque Voices, and died in London recently, aged 33.  This work used words from an English translation of the Sanskrit  Bhagavad Gita, most of the words sung being from a transliteration into Hindi.  The work was entitled na jayate mriyate.  There were sparse notes on the harp; Helen Webby was required also to knock on the wood of the instrument.   The setting was meditative, as if to induce a trance-like state.  Intervals of a second were featured – these were perfectly pitched.  In one section, the singers clapping small stones together, which made an attractive sound supporting the rhythms, and adding to the considerable variety of the piece.

Helen Bowater’s contribution, in the east, to the right was in a much more esoteric style, though oddly, the beginning was rather similar to Pepe Becker’s work, despite the very different theme.  It was sub-titled ‘humpty dumpty – a modern ecstasy’, the poem being written for the occasion by Andrew Caldwell.  It was an amusing commentary on Humpty’s famous fall, full of funny rhymes and pseudo-philosophical musings on the effect of his fall.  The last two lines give an idea of the mood: ‘with a map or an app you can see him by night,/ he’s that bright twinkling star in the east, to the right…’  Despite a fine choral and harp rendering of the fall, I did not feel that the musical setting reflected the humour of the piece.

The harp part had many intriguing musical figures; the use of small megaphones by some of the singers in parts may have been related to Humpty’s fall, and was certainly intriguing, and the music sounded like twinkling stars for those final two lines, but otherwise, I (and others I spoke to) thought the music too clever for the subject, and the opportunity for reflecting the joyous humour of the delightful poem was lost, although the harp part reflected it to some extent.  The structure of the work was not apparent (similarly in one or two of the other pieces performed).

Persephone by Mark Smythe (Pepe Becker’s brother, based now in the US) used a Latin translation of English words.  As the programme note stated, this work was ‘more dissonant and nebulous’ than Baroque Voices’ usual offerings.  Here, the structure was clear, but the repeated patterns for harp did not make the most of that instrument.  But splendid singing and brilliant playing, some beautiful intervals, harmonies and progressions made it an enjoyable listening experience.

We returned to the last items of A Ceremony of Carols: ‘This Little Babe’, ‘Interlude’ (harp solo), ‘In freezing winter night’ ‘Spring carol’, ‘Deo Gracias’ and ‘Recession’.
The first of these was so fast that most of the words were hard to pick up.  The harp solo was gentle, simple, evocative and subtle, employing a range of dynamics; the result: beautiful.

Britten’s astonishing writing for the harp – dramatic, adventurous and apt, was again prominent in the ‘Spring carol’, a duet for two sopranos.  ‘Deo Gracias’ is declamatory and very satisfying as an ending for the work (followed by the repeat of the ‘Hodie’).

The performance was warmly received by the audience, and congratulations are due to Baroque Voices for conceiving the programme and commissioning the New Zealand works, and ending with such expertise and beauty in the Recession.

Pepe Becker expressed her hope that many of the commissioned works would be taken up by choirs and ensembles.  Not all could be performed by any but the highly skilled, but some could.

It was unfortunate, in my view, that an encore of a light ‘radio theatre’ piece by Mark Smythe was given, spoiling the mood and atmosphere created by the last part of the Britten work.  It was bland, with a repetitive chant from some singers while others sang in both unison and harmony, accompanied by a sustained, somewhat repetitive harp part.


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