A challenging conspectus of unfamiliar Nordic song, from Kapiti Chamber Choir

Nordic Music and Myths: Songs from Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Norway by Alfvén, Sibelius,
Nørgård, Grieg, Sandstrøm, Sallinen, Langgaard, Rautavaara, Nielsen, Gade, Nordraak
Elgar: Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf

Kapiti Chamber Choir conducted by Eric Sidoti, with Jennifer Scarlet (piano), Sunny Amey (narrator), Pepe Becker (soprano), John Beaglehole (tenor) and Roger Wilson (baritone), Irene Lau (piano)

St. Paul’s Church, Paraparaumu

Sunday, 27 July 2014, 2.30pm

The fashion for themed concerts seems now firmly entrenched; whether it produces the best results is another matter.  This concert’s intention of covering a broad theme was perhaps its undoing.  I have attended numerous concerts by the Kapiti Chamber Choir over the years, but this one did not reach the standard of its predecessors.  Instead of trying to cover all the Nordic lands (except Iceland) and languages, it might have been better to concentrate on fewer composers, and perform more of their work, e.g. do a greater number of songs by Sibelius and perhaps of one or two of the others represented.  This would have been more cohesive, instead of the huge range we heard, some very briefly.

The only familiar item (to me) from the choir was Sibelius’s ‘Finlandia’, though sung with words (English) I had not heard before. Mellifluous tone and clear words made this a fine performance.  The other well-known piece was not sung, but played as a piano duet: Sinding’s old pot-boiler ‘Rustle of Spring’.  I don’t think this added any value in a choral concert.  A solo from Roger Wilson, Grieg’s sad song ‘A Swan’ effectively employed the baritone’s lower register.

None of the choral items in the first half was an easy sing, and most  were unaccompanied.  Good observation of dynamics was a significant feature, and the songs in English demonstrated the delightful
word-setting by the composers, particularly those by Finn Aulis Sallinen (1935-  ).

The songs in Finnish and other languages seemed to have more tuning problems, and variety of pronunciation made for a muddy sound at times. A couple of songs were sung with repetitive accompanying syllables from the lower voices, with varying success. The national anthem of Norway, by Rikard Nordraak (1842-1866) featured excellent tone and harmony – a fine performance.

Elgar’s King Olaf is little performed these days; perhaps there is a good reason for that.  It lacks the inspiration, melodic inventiveness and attractiveness of Dream of Gerontius or even The Music Makers.  Grove (Dictionary of Music and Musicians) says that it, along with other of Elgar’s choral works, ‘…suffer from poor librettos’ and ‘…here he chose texts which are sometimes muddled dramatically and often commonplace, or worse, in style.’ While Longfellow is much revered in the United States, and was in an earlier time in Britain, some of the verse Sunny Amey was required to declaim, and the soloists and choir to sing, was not far removed from doggerel, with ludicrous rhymes and conventional imagery.

The writer of the Grove article calls the first five movements memorable, but implies that the later ones are not of the same quality.  I would agree; they became tedious, until suddenly I was lit up when, almost at the end, we had the lovely song, often sung on its own, ‘As torrents in summer’.  I would call this the most inspired section, and the most beautifully sung, of the whole work.

The work comprised the second half of the over-long concert.  Spoken interventions by conductors have become a custom.  These were quite unnecessary, since much information was given in the excellent printed programme, and only served to take up time.

A difficulty for choirs is being able to provide an orchestra for works requiring one.  In this case, the piano was used instead.  However, a small upright piano in a fully carpeted church is but a poor substitute, despite the magnificent efforts of Jennifer Scarlet on this occasion.  Not only does it not give the variety of sound colours required, it does not support the choir sufficiently.
Whether frequent lapses of intonation, especially from the sopranos, can be blamed on this, I am not sure.  Much of the time the choir seemed under-rehearsed.  ‘S’ word-endings were not together, and individual voices were too prominent at times; at others, the tone sounded forced.  I think that Elgar would have written for a larger choir than this one consisting of 35 singers.

Of the soloists, John Beaglehole was the most distinguished.  His lively tenor gave some drama to his solos – he sang as if he meant what he was saying.  Pepe Becker is a wonderful singer of baroque and early music; I felt she was miscast in this late-Victorian cantata, in which Elgar adopted some of the
compositional style of Wagner.  These remarks applied also to the solos from these performers in the first half of the concert.  The style involved much use of chromatic writing – a trap for choirs, and one the choir frequently fell into, in terms of tuning.

Of course, not all was poor.  There were moments when the choir expressed the drama of the piece well, even though some of it was couched in musical and linguistic clichés.  There was some very attractive singing, especially in quiet passages.  In contrast, the loud passages sounded harsh, the voices not well supported.

It was remarkable how some of the men, particularly, managed to sing the whole work with but few glances at the conductor.

Maybe the music would serve well as background to an action film on the life and adventures of King Olaf.

I admire the conductor’s energy and innovation in producing this programme; he is musical director of the larger Kapiti Chorale, St. John’s in the City choir and the Hutt Valley Gang Show in addition to Kapiti Chamber Choir, but I have to say that this concert was a disappointment.


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