Enterprising new choir of youngish voices makes a real mark on Wellington’s choral scene

Wellington Young Professionals Choir – Supertonic, conducted by Isaac Stone

‘The Prisoner Rises’ – songs of resolve and resistance by Aaron Rosenthal, Donald McCullough, Ethel
Smyth, Britten, Vaughan Williams, and Traditional Supertonic
With Craig Utting (piano), Benjamin Sneyd-Utting (cello), Ephraim Wilson (organ) vocal soloists and readers from the choir

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Hill Street

Friday, 19 June, 7.30pm

A new phenomenon has hit the Wellington choral scene! This choir was formed last year (perhaps incorporating the lawyers choir I have heard several times at St. Andrew’s on The Terrace?), and comprises over 50 young singers.

The ambitious programme was enterprising, and selected from works expressing the horrors of imprisonment or incarceration of other kinds.  The venue was almost full; it appeared that most of the audience were friends and family of the performers – but there is no shame in that.  It is encouraging to see a mainly young audience at a concert of ‘classical’ music.  Choir members were clad in a variety of combinations of teal and black – most effective, and not boringly uniform.

The performance opened with a set of three songs based on poems by children who were incarcerated in Terezin concentration camp outside Prague, during the Second World War.  Google tells me that Rosenthal is a Boston-based composer, born in 1975.

Women sang first, and I was immediately struck by the lovely, uniform tone they produced.  Dynamics were telling but controlled in ‘To Olga’.  Next came ‘The Little Mouse’.  The piano part, played by Craig Utting, had the mouse jumping all over the place.  This song was partially in unison, often a trying test for choral singers, but the tuning was very good.

The third song, ‘The Butterfly’, featured gorgeous harmonies.  It was noticeable that the choir was very responsive to its conductor in these very effective songs.

The Holocaust Cantata is by an American, Donald McCullough (born 1957).  Although I searched the internet, and found that he is a prolific composer of choral music, I could not find out when the work in question was composed.  It is at least ten years old, and has obviously had many performances.  Sung in English, the lyrics and the readings between songs, were originally Polish.
The songs were based on folk melodies from the concentration camps.

Beside the excellent singing, the work was notable for the superb cello obbligato playing of 14-year-old Benjamin Sneyd-Utting, son of the excellent accompanist.  From his attentive gaze at the conductor, it became apparent that he had memorised much of the music.  The first song, ‘The Prisoner Rises’ was begun solemnly by the men.  Words and intonation were fine.  Parts of this number were reminiscent, both musically and in subject matter, of Tippett’s A Child of our Time.

The interspersed readings, all read by members of the choir, were variously titled to fit with the subject matter of the songs.  Although words from the choir were on the whole clear, because of the musical settings it was not always possible to understand the poems.  However, the readings were harrowing in their clarity, and their descriptions of experiences in the camps.  ‘Singing Saved my Life’ was more positive, but later ones were about the unspeakable methods of death perpetrated by Hitler and the Nazis on camp residents.  Most of the readers delivered the words appropriately, although the last two rushed the them rather, not taking into account the size of the church.

Men sang the second number, ‘Song of the Polish Prisoners’; the tenor tone was splendid.  The cello did not play in this song, but the piano accompaniment was complex.  Four readers spoke after the next song ‘In Buchenwald’.  The cello accompanied the harrowing words with gloomy music, expertly played.  Altogether, the cantata was some of the most doleful music I have ever heard.  The descriptions were hard to take.

‘The Train’ featured a male soloist.  Joshua Marshall has a pleasant voice, but was not totally in command of it.  The piano accompaniment’s rhythm echoed the title, while the choir’s contribution was admirable, not least because, as throughout the programme, the singers’ vowels were all pronounced in the same way, leading to purity of tone and good enunciation of words.  These facets were also advanced by the extent to which the choir members obviously listened to and toned in with each other.

A song for women only was unaccompanied, and quite beautiful.  Then ‘Tempo di Tango’ was followed by a reading about illicit drinking in the camp – the cello and piano illustrated the ‘under the influence’ context very well!  The final song, ‘Song of Days now gone’, had two female soloists.

For something more cheerful, the next item was March of the Women by Ethel Smyth, who apparently conducted it from her cell window with a tooth-brush, she having been imprisoned for her women’s suffrage activities.  This was nostalgic for me, since I worked in a library of books and archives from the suffragists (as opposed to the militant suffragettes), in London, and saw there an original printing of the words of this choral march.

Rejoice in the Lamb by Benjamin Britten was even more of a nostalgia trip for me; it was one of the first choral works I ever sang in, while a student at Otago University.  It was conducted by the redoubtable Professor Peter Platt, with fine organist Kenneth Weir, treble from the St. Paul’s Cathedral (Dunedin) choir, Valda McCracken (contralto), a tenor, and Ninian Walden (bass) as the superb bass soloist.  The audience was provided with full text.  It was bliss for me to hear this beautiful work again, the marvellous words of eighteenth-century poet Christopher Smart (who was held in an asylum at the time of writing the poem) coming over well, thanks not only to the choir, but to the wonderful word-setting skills of the composer.

Smart’s imagination was supremely matched by Britten’s, and the delicious settings, of, for example, ‘I will consider my cat Jeoffry’ and the passages about the mouse were absolutely beautiful, and played to perfection by Ephraim Wilson on the organ.  The use of a female alto instead of a counter-tenor did not detract gravely from the music; in fact all the soloists were up to the task, though the tenor’s voice was not well supported, and the bass’s tone was somewhat constricted.

The beauty of the last lines of the penultimate chorus ‘For at that time malignity ceases and the devils themselves are at peace. / For this time is perceptible to man by a remarkable stillness and serenity of soul’ followed by a quiet, graceful ‘Hallelujah’ is supreme.

Following this were a song by Vaughan Williams: ‘The Sky above the Roof’ sung by Georgia Gray, who also made a very good contribution as a soloist in the Britten, and three traditional spirituals, sung unaccompanied from round the walls of the church, with the conductor at the back.  ‘Steal Away’ was a different arrangement from the accustomed Sir Michael Tippett one; this one by American choral composer and arranger Russell Robinson.  There were a few little rhythmic flaws; it would not be surprising if the choir was getting tired.  ‘We shall Walk through the Valley in Peace’ began with humming and featured multi-part singing, and ‘Give me Jesus’ completed the programme.

Now some gripes: if you speak to the audience don’t say ‘um’ all the time!  Prepare what you are going to say, then say it fluently and succinctly.  The programme on this occasion was too long; talking took up too much time, especially at the end.  Speeches detract from the music, and makes it difficult to go away with the wonderful music in one’s head.  Make gift presentations by all means, but not accompanied by speeches that couldn’t be heard by audience members further back. The balance of the concert would have been more effective if it had ended with the Britten – the high point.

The concert was being presented in Masterton as well as Wellington, but the printed programme does not bear the names of the venues, nor the dates or times of the performances.

Nevertheless, this choir has achieved a lot already.  If you are at all interested in choral music, hear its next performance.



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