Audience stands to honour fine performance by Secondary Students’ Choir

New Zealand Secondary Students’ Choir in Concert directed by Andrew Withington, accompanied by Brent Stewart

Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul

Saturday, 26 April 2014, 7:30 pm

I reviewed the choir almost exactly two years ago; now they are here for another school holiday course.  My enthusiasm for their performance has not diminished, nor has the choir’s skill and versatility, despite the changes of personnel in the meantime.  There was a good-sized audience, but the back third of the Cathedral should not have been empty; this choir is deserving of a larger number of listeners.  Choristers came from all over New Zealand: Whangarei to Invercargill, with representatives from some small towns: Arrowtown, Shannon, Hawera for example.

Most of the programme was sung without printed scores; it was mainly the newer music for which scores were used.   The choir put on a highly professional concert, which I am sure will impress those who hear the singers later in the year in Singapore and Malaysia.  (Their singing won’t be poor, and I’m sure there will be no malaise – excuse me!)

As at the concert two years ago, the opening was with the church in darkness, the women processing in with candles, singing Jerusalem, an ancient Irish chant arranged by Michael McGlynn.  It featured a solo (rather too quiet) while the other singers backed with ‘oo-oo’, before the piece became multi-part.  This made a remarkable sound in the resonant cathedral, but few words could be perceived.

The full choir followed with the ‘Dies Irae’ from Mozart’s Requiem.  The piano accompaniment sounded strange – this is not a building that is kind to that instrument.

However, there was a strong, well-balanced sound.  The tempo was quite fast compared with what I have usually heard – or sung.

Mendelssohn’s Weihnachten followed.  The German was pronounced well, and uniformly, as it was in the Heinrich Schütz Psalm 115 that came next.  For this item, variety was provided by the appropriately baroque accompaniment on a spinet, and the division of the singers into three separate choirs.  The antiphonal singing and responses were superbly done; here, the scores were used.  There was plenty of depth in the basses. Confident attacks and dynamics were notable.  Most of the members watched their conductor almost  constantly.  Some tenors were a little too prominent in this work.  Part of the work was in a faster tempo, with more quavers and slurs.  This daunted the choir not in the least; it was a most creditable performance.

Throughout the accompanied items Brent Stewart, the choir’s principal accompanist, was lively, sympathetic and a thoroughly accomplished performer; the deficiencies were not to do with his technique or carrying out of his role. Items were introduced in groups by members of the staff of the choir and a few of the singers.  The microphone’s use was for the most part appropriate, and their words were heard clearly.

Ave Maria by Franz Biebl was sung by tenors and basses, including a solo trio and piano accompaniment, most effectively.  I knew nothing of Biebl, but on consulting Google, I found that he was a German who died in 2001.  According to the Wikipedia entry, the commonly-used programme note for the Ave Maria is by Dr. Wilbur Skeels – a former New Zealander, later resident in the US, and interestingly, composer of a setting of ‘Do not stand at my grave and weep’, another setting of which by David Childs (also a US-based New Zealander) was sung later in the concert.  The men made a gorgeous sound, especially in the opening unaccompanied section.

The soloists all had excellent, well-produced voices, especially fine in the piano and mezzo piano passages. The singers were utterly secure in the moving parts, and the Latin words were very clear.  I see how valuable it was when church singing was always in Latin; the clarity is so much greater than in many other languages in large, high venues.  There was a little stridency crept into the choir tenors at the forte ending.

A pleasing factor was the design of the men’s outfits.  Though I see no reason for all to be dressed in black, nevertheless, the men’s loose, collar-less shirts were a handsome choice.

Brahms was up next, the whole choir singing, with scores and piano, ‘Vineta’ from Drei Gesange, in total unanimity.  For something completely different, the men then performed ‘Mouth Music’, with resonant n and ng sounds, and drum accompaniment played by Brent Stewart.  Another light music piece was Scarborough Fair, sung by the women, in an interesting arrangement with a very well-played violin solo part from Theo Moolenaar that failed to sound out well enough in the Cathedral.

A David Childs item not listed in the programme was Remembrance, on the text referred to above.  The slow opening harmonies were very effective, while the contrasting fast section was lively and with beautiful tone – but there was more difficulty in picking up the words.  The slow passages returned, and both the soloist, Kelly Kim, and the high soprano ending were dramatic.

Twa Tanbou (Three Drums), a Haitian song was tricky, with cross-rhythms, but made an energetic impact just prior tot he interval.  Many syllables, in French Creole, were sounded in this fun piece with its dramatic ending.

We were recalled from the interval by a loud karanga, introducing Kua Rongo by the Wehi whanau.  The choir members now wore shoulder sashes over their garments. The women used single pois through part of the item, while the men did actions with notional taiahas. Memorising music and words, plus all the many movements was a considerable feat.  They were accompanied by Andrew Withington on guitar.

Two more pieces by David Childs followed, the first commissioned in memory of Lois Coplon, NZSSC’s Executive Officer from 1996 to 2009.   This was performed with piano, and began with soprano and alto voices only.  I found the choral harmonies interesting, but the melodies rather sentimental.  Despite the title In Requiescat, it was sung in English.

Between the Childs pieces, an unprogrammed piece, Lux Aeterna by Christchurch composer Richard Oswin, revealed again how well the Latin language sounds in this space.  The effective choral writing included unusual harmonies, chords and vocalisations, which were beautifully controlled.  Excellent low bass notes helped to support this unaccompanied item.

Childs’s Sonnet of the Moon was attractive (but who wrote the words?).  However, I found it became a rather soporific ballad, although sung with great beauty.

Two pieces from Suite Nordestina by Ronaldo Miranda, a contemporary Brazilian composer, were next – Portuguese another language to add to the already lengthy list the choir sings in. The cadences in the very rhythmic ‘Bumba Chora’ reminded me of that other Brazilian choral work, Ariel Ramírez’s Misa Criolla. ‘Dende Trapia’ was lively, and featured precise and uniform pronunciation of syllables.

A leading contemporary American choral composer is Eric Whitacre; his Cloudburst was sung in Wellington by the Orpheus Choir a number of years ago.  It used three soloists, piano, drums and win sheet (these in the upstairs side-gallery), hand-bells, and rhythmic clapping and finger-clicking.  It is a complex, multi-part work featuring close intervals. Despite its English title, it is sung in Spanish. The characterization of rain falling, the build-up to storm, and the lighter rain following are most accurately portrayed, though sometimes the voices didn’t penetrate all that rain.  The closing section of humming completed the drama of this quite lengthy, multi-faceted work, which gave plenty of opportunity to demonstrate the versatility of these singers, and how much they are able to achieve in a short course together.

Why does such a concert always have to conclude with lighter items?  These did not reveal the best singing by the choir, and were for the most part not appropriate to the building – I mean acoustically, not theologically.  Most were too fast and too loud to be heard to good effect.  Why ‘America’ from West Side Story needed to be included in a full programme, I do not know.  It was faster than I’d ever heard it; the only word that was distinct was ‘America’.  It is better sung by an ensemble, not by a large choir.

Another lighter item with piano was Celebrate by Keith Hampton (he and a number of the other composers featured also in the 2012 programme).  Again fast, loud and without perceptible words.  There was a soloist, but she was rather lost standing behind a much taller person.  I’m afraid the style sounded almost ugly in this building, as did the next piece, I’ve got the World on a String in which choir members performed the actions of playing wind instruments.

The concert ended with cultural items – the first, Tate le fia Manatua was acted out by two choruses; it was to do with the possible marriage of Samoan and Tongan prince and princess.  Gestures, movement and facial expressions, particularly of the two leaders, made for a very splendid performance.  Again, fortissimo singing lost the subtlety that at times the gestures were conveying.  However, the latter were quite complicated, and graceful.  It all made up to an exciting performance, and again was a great act of memory.

Finally Siyabangena and Ke Nna Yo Morena, two South African traditional pieces, were very rhythmic.  They were conducted (the previous item was not) and involved a lot of clapping.  Then the choir paraded down the side aisles of the Cathedral, and the audience ended the concert standing to honour the skill of the choir and the thorough enjoyment of the performances.


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