Nota Bene splendidly celebrates its 10th Anniversary

Nota Bene – 10th Anniversary Concert

Choral music by numerous composers (including a new commission from David Hamilton)

Nota Bene, directed by Christine Argyle
Items conducted by Peter de Blois and Julian Raphael
Emma Sayers (piano), Penny Miles (bassoon)
Geoff Robinson, compere

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday, 14 September 2014, 4.30pm

I was sorry that Nota Bene chamber choir chose to sing on a Sunday – Chamber Music New Zealand had that day also joined the Sunday afternoon gang (in the latter’s case, 5pm), so I could not attend both concerts.  Next Sunday (21 September) there are no fewer than five classical music concerts in and around Wellington; Middle C cannot review them all, and to the extent that the audiences will inevitably overlap to some extent, the individual audiences will be smaller than they might otherwise have been.

However, all praise to Nota Bene and Christine Argyle for a wonderfully diverse concert, made somewhat sad by the fact that the latter is giving up her music directorship.  How she has managed to undertake all the activities she enumerated in an interview with Eva Radich on Wednesday, on Upbeat! (RNZ Concert), I do not know.  She is obviously good at both preparation and organisation.

The concert was made up of items from various concerts performed by the choir over the period of its existence.  Some original members are still with the choir, and some of the songs were performed at the first concert.  Some singing in this concert were former members invited to return for the occasion.  After the performance the choir launched its first CD, made up of items from the concerts of the past that had been broadcast by Radio New Zealand Concert, some of the  items being those that were performed on Sunday.

It all amply demonstrated the eclecticism of the choir, its variety of skills and its ability to be flexible and responsive to very different periods, styles and genres.  An innovation was a screen showing colour photos of the choir at the time of each concert from which an excerpt was performed.  Compère Geoff Robinson (former presenter on Radio New Zealand National) told us some of the choir’s history, and related information regarding the works and their performances, along with a few anecdotes, prior to each couple of items.  A tendency to drop his voice at the ends of phrases meant that I did not hear everything he said.  There was a good attendance, the body of the church being nearly full, with a handful of people sitting in the gallery.

Christine Argyle, using a tuning fork, gave the notes for each part prior to each item (most were unaccompanied); a striking feature was that the choir began, and continued, bang in tune every time.

Many of the items were in English, nevertheless all words were printed in the programme, in English, regardless of original language.  The huge diversity of songs ranged from the straight-forward to complex, multi-part items.  Some, like the opening two Flower Songs by Benjamin Britten sounded simple, but as I know from experience, are not so.  Although the choir’s diction was very good, in multi-part items it is inevitable that not all the words will be heard.  Britten chose fine poetry to set, as did others of the composers, so it was good to be able to read it, as an enhancement to understand the musical settings.

Throughout, the choir had a lovely smooth, blended tone.  The acoustics of St. Andrew’s enhanced the sound more than is the case with some venues in which I have heard Nota Bene.

After a change of mood for Purcell’s complex setting of  ‘Hear my Prayer, O Lord’ sung with almost perfect expression and phrasing and Holst’s ‘Ave Maria’ (in Latin, gorgeously rendered), we returned to English poetry for John Rutter’s setting of Shakespeare’s well known ‘It was  lover and his lass’from As You Like It.  Like most of Rutter’s music, it was a joyful piece, this time in a popular swing style, and given a very fine performance.

A couple of traditional songs followed, one French (Provençal) and one in English.  Geoff Richards’s arrangement of ‘Le Baylère’ (alias ‘Bailèro’) incorporated sumptuous harmony and suspensions.  Whether it was sung in French (as implied by the title) or Provençal I could not tell, but it received a wonderful performance.  ‘Brigg Fair’ arranged by Percy Grainger is well-known.  It featured young tenor soloist Griffin Madill Nichol, a member of the choir.  His voice was right for a folk song, and he did his part well, backed by the humming choir.  Crescendi and decrescendi were beautifully managed.

Now to a less well-known piece: ‘Les Sirènes’ by the talented but all too short-lived French composer Lili Boulanger (1893–1918).  The choral piece was sung by the women (in French) in two physically separate choirs, and contained a solo for splendid mezzo Natalie Williams; it was accompanied by pianist Emma Sayers.  The piano part conveyed the movement of water, with shimmering arpeggios and broken chords.

Ben Oakland’s ‘Java Jive’ brought a complete change of mood, and was sung from memory by a small group, with solos (and repeated at the end of the concert as an encore by the entire choir); it was brilliantly done, its clashes of harmony confidently and resolutely prominent.

Last before the interval was a traditional South African piece, led by Julian Raphael, that buoyant choral supremo, who played a maraca while the choir, singing from memory, incorporated movement in its loud and energetic performance.  The singers managed to sound really like Africans.

After the break, another guest conductor who has directed the choir’s concerts in the past, Peter de Blois, conducted the Kyrie from New Zealander Sam Piper’s Requiem and ‘Song for Athene’ by John Tavener.  The former was a lively piece with good melody lines from the altos in the Kyrie section; focus of the melody changed for the Christe section.  Tavener’s work introduced very fine pianissimo singing – long-breathed lines with a hummed background.  It was a very accomplished performance.  The words were elevated indeed – but not all were printed.

In calm and meditative mood was the ‘Ave Maris Stella’ of Edvard Grieg (sung in Latin).  Only here was I aware of a mid-verse entry where the voices were not together – most unusual. This, and the remaining items, were conducted by Christine Argyle.

Ivan Hrušovský (1927–2001) was a Slovak composer. His ‘Rytmus’, a Latin piece, was very fast, the choir having to spit out the words, but in accordance with the title, there were many emphases and accents.

Now came two New Zealand works: firstly, ‘Ursula at Parakakariki’ (which is on Banks Peninsula) by Carol Shortis.  It began with sea sounds on a special kind of percussion shaker played by one of the choir, and was accompanied by Emma Sayers, interspersed with passages for bassoon.  Both the music and the Fiona Farrell poem were quite delightful, yet complex, with seemingly independent choral lines parting and converging.  Although it was announced along with the next item, spontaneous applause burst out.  The composer was present, and acknowledged the applause.

Present, too, was David Hamilton, to hear the performance of the piece commissioned by the choir for this occasion: ‘Canción de Invierno’ (Songs of Winter), his setting of a text by Juan Ramón Jiménez, was about birds singing from somewhere, despite leafless trees.  It began with syllables only being sounded, then Natalie Williams sang a solo while the choir continued the syllables.  All joined in later to sing about singing.  Superb dynamics built up to an astonishing double forte.  In the final section there were solo voices above a general hubbub.  This was a thrilling performance of an exciting work, despite a little lack of unanimity in the final section for solos.  Someone remarked to me after the concert that other choirs will want to get their hands on this music.

Something completely different was Mendelssohn’s enchanting chorus from Elijah: ‘He, watching over Israel’.  Its wondrous harmonies, modulations and unexpected melodic twists were beautifully realised; in fact, with the wonderful dynamics and expression, I would call this a moving and almost perfect performance.

Finally, two contemporary composers’ works: ‘Lux Aurumque’ by American Eric Whitacre, and ‘The Shepherd’s Carol’ by Briton Bob Chilcott.  The former was a very imaginative piece of choral writing, but quite tricky, with close intervals, while the latter was very melodic, but again with challenging harmony.

This has been a great ten years!  Congratulations to the amateur choir that has it all. It is hard to pick up highlights from such a varied concert with a choir that is a triumph of skill and excellent singing.  May Nota Bene go from strength to strength under a new music director, and full praise to Christine Argyle who has led it, even choosing the programmes when she was not conducting, with flair, imagination and skill.

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