Rather short and variable concert from university voices and instruments

New Zealand School of Music

Victoria Voices: Songs from South Africa, Broadway and Renaissance Europe, conducted by Robert Legg, Andrew Atkins and Thomas Nikora, with Andrew Atkins and Thomas Nikora (piano)

Psathas: Island Songs; Ragnarök Trio (Claudia Tarrant-Matthews, violin; Caitlin Morris, cello; Sophie Tarrant-Matthews, piano)

Pujol: Grises y Soles; Paulo Beillinati: A Furiosa; Guitar Quartet (Royden Smith, Dylan Solomon, George Wills, Jamie Garrick)

Adam Concert Room

Wednesday 30 September, 7.30pm

A small but enthusiastic audience heard a rather short concert (50 minutes, with several longish breaks for changing the position of the piano and other adjustments), the chamber music sections of which were being assessed towards the players’ end-of-year academic results.

The choir was presenting its second concert for the year, under the direction of Dr Robert Legg. It was a much smaller choir than that which sang in May; doubtless it currently being exam. time was the difference between nearly forty and 22. The choir includes students, staff and others associated with the university.

Three African songs began the programme, the first two sung from the gallery above the first-floor Adam Concert Room in the School of Music. It was slightly disconcerting that 7 faces were hidden from most of the audience by a large rolled up projecting screen. These first songs were sung unaccompanied, from memory, and featured splendid tone and projection, although I found the altos rather weak, apart from a fine alto solo, and a tenor one too, in the second song.

For the third song, ‘Hamba Lulu’, the choir descended to the audience’s level, and sang with piano accompaniment from Andrew Atkins. Overall, there was a pleasing sound. This was not difficult music, and the Adam Concert Room acoustic allowed everything to be heard.

John Psathas’s work was a challenge for young players, but one they fully met. This was a later setting of the work; the original was for clarinet, violin and piano. The cellist and violinist (playing an unusually large violin) knew the work so well that they scarcely looked at their scores. It demanded high energy playing, but in this lively acoustic the fortissimos were a bit hard on my ears. There was some difficult double-stopping for the cellist towards the end of the first movement, and again later – but it was performed in most accomplished fashion.

The second movement featured extensive pizzicato for the cellist. The violinist doubled some of the passages with the bow, but this was difficult to hear. The pianist, whose face we could not see through a wall of hair, was thoroughly competent at her demanding part throughout the work.

Voices returned, to be conducted by Andrew Atkins and accompanied in the second item by Thomas Nikora. First was an anonymous medieval drinking song, ‘Vitrum Nostrum’, sung unaccompanied. A very fine solo tenor introduced the piece, and was followed by the choir making a robust sound, and with excellent rhythm and ensemble. There followed Thomas Morley’s well-known ‘Now is the Month of Maying’, which was given a sprightly accompaniment by Nikora. Atkins did a good job in conducting the choir, though some of his body movement was excessive. Generally well-sung, the item suffered from a rather untidy rallentando at the end.

Next up was a splendid guitar quartet, playing two South American works. The first was by Argentinian Máximo Diego Pujol: ‘Grises y Soles’; the second, ‘A Furiosa’, by Brazilian Paulo Bellinati. Of interest to me was the fact that the players did not use the traditional little one-foot stools to help them support their instruments, but instead had support brackets clamped onto the sides of the instruments. Like the earlier trio, the players knew their music so well that not a lot of use was made of their scores.

Both pieces employed a large variety of guitar tones, techniques and timbres. There was a variety of percussive effects, strumming (very little) as well as plucking with fingernails or with fingertips. These techniques and effects conveyed a huge variety of moods, rhythms and tempi in the pieces. The second piece was rather more melodic than was the Pujol. Both were exciting, and demonstrated the skill, precision and preparatory work of the players.

The choir returned to sing two songs from the shows, conducted from the keyboard by Thomas Nikora: ‘Edelweiss’, from The Sound of Music by Rodgers and Hammerstein, and ‘Sunday’ from Sunday in the Park with George, by Stephen Sondheim. The first was pleasant, but rather passionless (not that it is a highly passionate song!). There was more variety of expression in the heartier second piece.

While the chamber and guitar musicians performed to a very high standard, the choir, and its repertoire, were disappointing, despite a pleasing sound and a good level of accuracy. This concert hardly seemed to be the culmination of four months of consistent choral rehearsal since the last concert, in May. Comparisons may be odious, but… it was a far cry from the university choirs of my time, and the levels they reached performing, for example, as the second choir in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, and the splendid à cappella choir’s Mass for Five Voices by William Byrd.

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