Defences overwhelmed by seductive songs from Nota Bene under Julian Raphael

Nota Bene: Untold Stories

Music from New England and New Zealand by Brendan Taaffe, Don Jamison and Julian Raphael

Directed by Julian Raphael, with guest musicians

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Saturday 27 June, 8 pm

Nota Bene, founded over ten years ago by Christine Argyle, has always been a slightly unorthodox choir, perhaps ‘eclectic’ and ‘adventurous’ might be better words: they often veer towards the not-so-heavy repertoire whether jazz, quasi-pop, art songs, Renaissance polyphony, folk or “World” music, with special attention to New Zealand composers, and not averse to a touch of religiose sentiment. It’s also a choir whose performances are marked by enthusiasm, fun and sparkling precision in their ensemble and diction. All of which is vividly demonstrated in their CD, NB: accents – celebrating 10 years which includes a few seriously beautiful, mainstream classical tracks. It’s been hard to extract from the CD player in my car for many months: the music is wonderful and it’s a real chance to be spellbound by the choice of music and its immaculate performances.

Background to the concert was to be found, not so much in the programme leaflet, but in the choir’s website. Julian Raphael has become well known in Wellington through his work with several choirs, and with schools. Brendan Taaffe has visited twice, holding workshops, but Don Jamison might be known only through his songs. The latter two live in Vermont, and their songs are notated using a system (and in a style) known as ‘shape-note’.

It’s defined: “Shape-note singing, a musical practice and tradition of social singing from music books printed in shape notes. Shape notes are a variant system of Western musical notation whereby the note heads are printed in distinct shapes to indicate their scale degree and solmization syllable (fa, sol, la, etc.)”; and “Shape notes are a music notation designed to facilitate congregational and community singing. The notation, introduced in 1801, became a popular teaching device in American singing schools”.

The character of performance is described in another website: “It has a distinctive sound: modal, open chords, octave doubling, unusual harmonies. It is usually sung at full volume in an exuberant outpouring of sound and feeling.”

The four shape-note pieces by Jamison (Owen Sound, Cabin Hill, Jackson Heights, Kingdom) were four-part settings of adaptations of Psalms, vaguely hymnal in a southern Baptist accent. That said, the music was most agreeable, often syncopated or swinging easily; the singing, almost all without the scores in front of them, exemplary. The songs’ superficial simplicity conceals an essential musicality and integrity of spirit.

The bracket of songs by Brendan Taaffe was a little more varied in their style and range of influences. Agawa Bay revealed an influence of Renaissance polyphony, in a brisk tempo; in Wester Caputh men’s voices sang the opening passage, a touching melody that thinned attractively as women joined. Superior was a tender, nostalgic song, in a slow tempo without any hint of syncopation, and Greenwood Lake, in slow triple time, peppered with quavers, with words that suggested a more religious awareness.

The last item in the first half was a boisterous, get-up-and-move gospel song from North Carolina, ‘Better Day a-Coming’, joyous and energetic, and here conductor Raphael threw himself into the spirit with broad arm gestures, encouraging swinging and clapping, not only from the choir but also from the audience, most of whom followed with some gusto.

Part 2 was Julian Raphael’s own: a group of songs to words by Frances Knight and music by him.  He explained that the songs, Untold Stories, were conceived during a summer holiday in France and worked over by the pair when they returned to Canterbury (England) – a ‘delightful process of collaborative song-writing’, he says.

These were accompanied by a small ensemble of Nick Granville – guitar, John Rae – percussion, Sarah Hopkins – mallets, that is marimba, and Umar Zakaria – bass, as well as Raphael himself at the piano from time to time.

The first song, Our Song, began with a long instrumental introduction, and the voices entered without fanfare; it was repetitious, in an evolving manner, carrying echoes of southern African music (Raphael has spent time in Zimbabwe and is a student of Shona culture and music; the home of a great hit in the 1950s, Skokiaan, one of the most infectious dance party numbers in my late teens, a hit by Bill Haley and Louis Armstrong, somewhat bastardised by Bert Kaempfert and James Last. There are a couple of LPs in my crowded shelves).

Having been seduced by the above experience 60 years ago, this music still has a hold on me and so, in their different ways, I enjoyed the swing and energy of all the rest of the programme: Shine me on my Way, My Heart, Disappeared and Touch the Sky. There were other influences too, the American south again, Latin American (in Disappeared: infectious, poignant, very appealing), the Balkans. And three soloists from the choir came forward to sing lyrics in most of them (Jeltsje Keiser, John Chote and Marian Willberg).

To send us home in great spirits, the choir repeated ‘Better day a-coming’. As promised by Raphael, the music – really the entire programme – proved hard to resist, eminently singable, the stuff to overcome the most diffident audience and, I’m sure, music that breaks down the rigidity of teenage taste in high school students.  Nota Bene might give the impression of an unpretentious choir, but it’s one of the best trained and most joyous in the city.


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