Orpheus Choir under Brent Stewart outstanding with Bruckner and Poulenc

The Orpheus Choir of Wellington conducted by Brent Stewart

Poulenc: Gloria (Rachel Alexander – soprano)
Bruckner: Te Deum (Rachel Alexander – soprano, Rebecca Woodmore – alto, James Benjamin Rodgers – tenor, James Henare – bass-baritone)

Organ (Douglas Mews) and instrumental ensemble: Matthew Ross (violin), Jennifer Vaughan (flute), Barrett Hocking (trumpet), Shadley van Wyk (horn), Julian Kirgan (trombone), Grant Myhill (timpani), Ludwig Treviranus (piano)

Cathedral of Saint Paul

Saturday 22 August 7:30 pm

Though this concert was advertised as being accompanied by the cathedral organ, without mention of other instruments, the programme disclosed the names of seven instrumentalists. I am one of the pernickety race that hopes for performances from the voices and instruments prescribed by the composer. However, while I’d have loved Orchestra Wellington to have been on hand, the small band and Douglas Mews’ organ playing did very well, supplying needed colour. (I am very fully aware of the economic constraints applying in the value-system of our political culture).

Brent Stewart took over as the choir’s conductor at the end of last year; this was my first experience of the choir since then (I missed their acclaimed Elijah in May).

I am almost always pleased when a conductor does more than merely bow as he/she steps on to the podium, and reaches for a microphone or perhaps simply projects his voice well. Stewart spoke interestingly about Poulenc, his character and that of his music, though I imagine his warnings about the often unserious nature of his music hardly prepared those of the audience unfamiliar with this or other music of Poulenc, for the uncommon tone of the religious music with which his Gloria opens. The audience: surprisingly large on a cold night.

Here, I must confess, I had wished for a more complete orchestral support, as certain instruments enjoyed a somewhat unbridled jaunt: single lines where Poulenc has brass or woodwinds playing in harmony. Poulenc’s writing for wind instruments is vivid and very characteristic and I did rather miss the full sounds of the orchestra both playing by itself and in support of the choir. Perhaps the fifth movement’s introduction, scored prominently for woodwinds, suffered most from the absence of other than a solitary flute, beautiful as that was.

However, the choir’s contribution was full of vigour and well integrated, overcoming impressively the long and testing echo that is both a strength and weakness of the cathedral. While the lively, Stravinsky-like, outer sections of the ‘Laudamus te’ and the ‘Domine fili unigenite’ were splendid, with its staccato rhythms in both choir and instruments, the acoustic was more bothersome in some of the fast, complex passages. Nevertheless, the ‘Laudamus Te’, with the surprising, quiet ‘Gratias agimus’ in the middle, demonstrated most clearly the essential spirit of the work as well as of Stewart’s success in leading the choir with clarity and wonderful energy.

The soprano soloist is employed in the more pensive third and fifth movements where flute and horn led to Rachel Alexander’s beautiful contribution. Her sensitivity was most clearly shown in the last movement, ‘Qui sedes’, where she had an unaccompanied passage followed by a quite poignant passage
leading to the Amen.

Before starting Bruckner’s Te Deum, Stewart spoke again about the music, but also drew attention to the choir’s farewell to choir member and administrator Judy Berryman, choir member for 30 years.

The Te Deum, unlike his three masses, which had preceded his mature symphonies, was written about 13 years later, about the time of the 6th symphony. It demanded all four soloists and a full orchestra. Strangely, instrumental sparseness seemed far less significant here than in the Poulenc, though in truth, the orchestra makes a glorious contribution that usually affords me quite as much delight as the singing. However, my notes made no reference to any inadequacy here and the strength of the singing by both choir and soloists proved more than enough in itself. Perhaps it was a case of the discriminating organ and the individual instruments supplying enough for the imagination to fill in the gaps.

After the arresting opening, at ‘Tibi omens Angeli’, the four soloists entered one by one – soprano, tenor, alto, bass, and each made a fine impact, dominated in many ways by the strength and clarity of James Rodgers’s tenor (he led again, impressively, at the opening of the ‘Te ergo quaesumus’); and there was a conspicuous violin obbligato from Matthew Ross. If the orchestral element was lacking, the choir achieved a wonderful feeling of exultation in the following choral passage, contrasting with the mystical, subdued, ‘Patrem immensae majestatis’. One tries not to smile at the emotional climaxes
that accompany certain words like the composer’s excitement at ‘Tu ad dexteram Dei sedes’; we attend the music and not the doctrine however, and the music and its singing continued at a level of commitment and richness that could be achieved with a choir approaching a hundred in number.

Later in the work, it was good to hear other soloists more conspicuously, especially James Henare at ‘Et rege eos’ in the fourth section. And in the final section, ‘In te, Domine, speravi’, the four sing in one of the rare ensembles, allowing soprano Rachel Alexander and alto Rebecca Woodmore, to be heard to impressive effect. That section, involving the repetition of only eight words for seven or eight minutes, was offered more chances to enjoy separate sections of the choir, the sopranos against the altos; women and men interweaving in counterpoint.

I might remark that the usual custom of offering words to help the audience follow the action, is not a bad tradition – both Latin and English preferably; though I must acknowledge the pithy and illuminating notes that were printed in the programme.

The two works each lasted between 20 and 25 minutes, meaning the concert lasted only about an hour and a quarter, a bit shorter than is normal. Nevertheless, the strength and commitment – quality – of the singing compensated remarkably for lesser quantity.

Nothing really diminished the impact of the final page or so of the work, with brass and timpani doing their best along with the splendid, climactic efforts by the choir, combining to make Brent Stewart’s second major concert with the choir a resounding success.


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