War’s impact on the women: Nota Bene sings, Gaylene Preston reads memories

Mothers, Daughters, Wives

Nota Bene, chamber choir, conducted by Peter Walls Readings by Gaylene Preston
Bruce Cash – organ and piano; Oscar Bullock – violin

Hall of Memories, National War Memorial (The Carillon)

Saturday 14 November 7:30 pm

I’m wondering if others have noticed that quite a lot of musical and other attention is being paid to a war that took place a hundred years ago on the other side of the world; perhaps not: I’m just unusually perceptive.

It was a sad mess, an indictment on all the states that became involved, because based on nationalist bigotry, pride and bluster, and in our own case on empty jingoism. But our own losses, large per capita, were confined to military personnel and small in comparison with horrendous killings of both soldiers and civilians, particularly in central and east Europe.

In the words of the Bach chorale: ‘Ich habe genug’.

This event inspired by Nota Bene looked a bit different though. To begin, the choice of music, mainly liturgical, dealing with the most anguished aspects of Christian belief and myth, complemented the suffering of the women who were bereft by the deaths and terrible impairment, mental and physical, of sons, husbands and brothers.

The concert took place in the Hall of Memories at the foot of the Carillon, also known as the National War Memorial which I didn’t even know existed till about thirty years ago, even though born and bred in Wellington. This surprising, exquisite space is used mainly for religious services associated with war commemoration, but it’s also been used occasionally for other events. The Tudor Consort gave concerts here in earlier years.

Gaylene Preston read a number of extracts from written reminiscences of women, starting with poems Armistice Day and Ellen’s Vigil by Canterbury poet Lorna Staveley Anker. Preston’s delivery was perfectly judged, with simplicity and integrity in a soft, educated, New Zealand accent; long-gone are the affected, elocuted and dehumanized offerings that were once standard.

The following memories avoided histrionics, yet the expression of grief and hopelessness was the more real. A common theme as soldiers were farewelled on troop ships, was the belief that all would be well.

Pamela Quill followed her husband to England when he joined the air force; she described receipt of the telegram which simply reported ‘missing’. Joy’s memories included the plague of nightmares that afflicted her after the telegram about her brother.

Our approaching maturity was perhaps best revealed by Rita’s description of her husband’s imprisonment as a conscientious objector in the second world war; his work colleagues at the Auckland Savings Bank took up a collection which helped sustain Rita through the years of the war (I suspect there would have been a less sympathetic response in WW1).

A particularly poignant experience was told through the eyes of Tui’s child, born after the father’s departure, who had problems at his return, as indeed did Tui herself; by then she hardly knew him.

In the last piece, the writer reflected at the VJ Day celebration in 1945 overshadowed for Ali by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – ‘a world changed forever’.

In many ways the readings packed the greatest punch, though the religious motets and the songs that emerged during the wars were beautifully sung. They began with the Gregorian chant, Dies Irae, with the men walking slowly up the left aisle and the women up the right; then came Peter Philips’s Mulieres sedentes, composed during James I’s reign, harmonically sophisticated (you’ll find it on the highly praised 2001 Naxos CD that Peter Walls recorded with the Tudor Consort).

Bruckner’s Ave Maria was subject to an ecstatic performance, women’s voices perhaps a bit overwhelming. Those expecting Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater night have been disappointed to get Palestrina’s, but here of course the double choir is unaccompanied and the part singing was very fine.

In the second half, as well as an organ solo by Thomas Tomkins played by Bruce Cash, the choir sang more recent liturgical pieces: an elaborate, little Crucifixus by baroque composer Antonio Lotti; the a cappella version of Barber’s Adagio, to the Agnus Dei, with soprano soloist Inese Berzina very prominent; young New Zealand composer Sam Piper’s impressive Kyrie; Grieg’s Ave maris stella; Tavener’s Song for Athene and the In paradisum from Fauré’s Requiem. All admirably and beautifully sung.

The non-classical songs were more of a mixed bag, one or two with slight blemishes, but they served to illustrate the strong optimism and sympathy that pervaded the general population throughout the years of war. An intelligence and awareness of legitimate political issues sometimes surfaced in the songs too, as in Freedom Come-All-Ye, touching the question of the Scots (and by inference, other peoples of the ‘British Empire’) fighting ‘foreign’ wars.

Thus the evening offered intellectual and social interest, and healthy provocation as well as more simple musical pleasure.

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