“The Cloud Capp’d Towers”: Shakespeare in the Land of the Long White Cloud
Nota Bene, directed by Peter Walls, with Nigel Collins (the Bard), Fiona McCabe (piano) and Joel Baldwin (guitar); vocal soloists from the choir
Salvation Army Citadel
Saturday, 9 April 2016, 7.30pm
Despite the title of the concert, the song referenced appeared in the printed programme as ‘The Cloud-clapped Towers’. Some of those in Christchurch certainly were, although the tall buildings on the cover of the programme represented Auckland and Wellington.
Joking aside, the programme presented was a marvellous conception by Peter Walls and Jacqueline Coats. Peter Walls has taken over as Nota Bene’s new musical director; he’s a busy man, having just at Easter directed the Tudor Consort in their Good Friday presentation, and travelling frequently to Hamilton to conduct the Opus Orchestra.
As a commemoration of 2016 being the 400th year since Shakespeare’s death, this was a superb tribute; the fanciful idea of Shakespeare dreaming of ‘Terra Australis incognita’ (including New Zealand) was perhaps a little too contrived, and unnecessary. New Zealand composers included in the programme needed no special pleading for their presence.
The many wonderful settings of Shakespeare’s inspiring words, plus dramatic speeches from some of the plays, made a satisfying and rewarding evening of words and music, in the acoustically alive Salvation Army Citadel. The disadvantage of this feature was that it picked up every sound and error.
Vaughan Williams’s marvellous Three Shakespeare Songs were interspersed through the programme: one at the beginning, one later on, and one at the end. The first, ‘Full fathom five’ from The Tempest, was sung from the gallery. There the men sounded rather sepulchral; the tone needed to be produced further forward and they needed the spontaneity of the women’s. The sound changed when the choir came downstairs to sing on the platform, where the men had their backs to the wall. The first speech was from the same play. Nigel Collins was costumed, and sat at first at a desk, complete with quill pen and inkwell; later he stood in various parts of the auditorium to deliver his lines, which he did with expression and understanding, revealing his skill in the actor’s art.
We moved to Othello, and the famous Elizabethan setting of ‘The Willow Song’, sung by Juliet Kennedy with Joel Baldwin accompanying on guitar. It was a pity not to have the originally-advertised Stephen Pickett playing ‘Renaissance lute, theorbo and guitar’, for greater verisimilitude. Juliet Kennedy sang the song attractively, but it was a little strange to have printed ‘Her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee’ when the original is ‘his’, and that is what was sung. More words were printed than were actually sung.
Three Shakespeare Choruses by American composer Amy Beach (1867-1944) set words familiar from other composers’ settings. They were for women only and were inventive and very pleasing, involving complex interweaving parts. The third, ‘Through the house give glimmering light’ (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) featured lovely lilting rhythms. This time, more words were sung than were printed. It was good to have almost all the words printed in the programme, but Nota Bene could note well the recent Tudor Consort concert, for which the printed programme had been arranged so that it was unnecessary to turn the pages during the items, thus avoiding noisy rattling.
A speech from A Midsummer Night’s Dream was followed by the choir descending to sing from the platform; firstly three choruses from Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, a semi-opera derived from the afore-mentioned play, the first with soprano soloist Inese Berzina, and all accompanied by Fiona McCabe, stepping out from the choir to play the piano. Unfortunately, the piano was too loud for the soloist, though the choir’s singing was good. The second featured bass soloist John Chote. His tone was sometimes on the raw side, and he was unable to produce effective tone from the low notes. The choral parts were very fine, and Purcell’s music bloomed beautifully.
The next, unaccompanied, section began with the second of Vaughan Williams’s songs: ‘Over hill, over dale’. It suffered from a poor start, the singers not being together, and appearing unconfident. After a bit, all was well. Following another stirring excerpt, this time from Henry IV, part II, music not setting Shakespeare’s words, but written by musicians who were the bard’s contemporaries, were performed: ‘Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth’, by Byrd and ‘What is our life’ by Gibbons. The former was an intricate piece, sung well, though the bass part was at times too dominant. In the latter, a small group was made up of good voices, but they did not always blend well. When they did, a fine sound was produced.
The men then disappeared, and after a splendid Caliban from Nigel Collins, the women sang Five Shakespeare Songs by David Farquhar. These characterful songs illustrated the bard’s words well, with music that evoked the moods. They were not easy, and very different in nature from the remainder of the concert. The final one, ‘Clown’s Song’ (“When that I was and a little tiny boy”) struck me as difficult to bring off unaccompanied, but it worked.
Following the interval, David Hamilton’s A Shakespeare Garland, set seven of Shakespeare’s texts on “botanical and/or seasonal” themes, six of them well-known. The composer’s 1999 composition set the words ‘in a variety of parody styles ranging from jazz to car-chase music.’ They differed markedly from their more familiar settings, especially ‘Hark, hark, the lark’ (Cymbeline) if compared with Schubert’s setting of the German translation. These songs were accompanied by guitar and piano, but I seldom heard the former due to the latter, despite sitting on the guitar’s side of the audience, and observing that the guitarist had a microphone and thus was being amplified.
‘It was a lover and his lass’ was sprightly, good fun. ‘Come buy of me’ (The Winter’s Tale) demonstrated Hamilton’s mastery of choral writing; a gorgeous song. The choir produced lovely resonance on the ‘m’ consonants. After a high-speed ‘Hark, hark, the lark’ came the much-loved Sonnet 18: ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’, sung by women only, with guitar; this was a delight. ‘I know a bank whereon the wild thyme blows’ (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) was another delight, redolent with images from the bard’s wonderful words, most of which here and elsewhere could be heard clearly. This and the remaining two songs were accompanied.
‘When daisies pied’ (Love’s Labours Lost) was particularly jazzy, lively and fun – nothing like the well-known setting, which seems like a stroll in the park in comparison. The last song in the cycle, ‘Under the greenwood tree’ (As You Like It) was not the expected gentle pastoral setting. Again, I could not hear the guitar. Perhaps the men were tiring from so much standing; their tone was rather raw when singing loudly. They had their reprieve; after another oration from Nigel Collins (Lorenzo, The Merchant of Venice), the choir got to sit while two soloists gave us Shakespearean songs of quite different characters: Stephanie Gartrell (alto) sang with piano ‘Falling in love with love’ (Rogers and Hart’s 1938 The Boys from Syracuse) that again had only some of the words printed, but it was most effective, sung with clear diction.
Jeltsje Keizer sang with guitar ‘Take, O take those lips away’ (when will programme compilers realise the difference between the ‘O’ of invocation and the ‘oh’ of mild exclamation? I admit I have not consulted the First Folio! [I have, however, as proud owner of a facsimile edition; the learned Heminge – or Heming, Hemminge, or Hemmings – and Condell, the compilers and publishers of the First Folio, knew their ‘O’s from their ‘Oh’s, and it appears there as ‘Oh’ L.T.]). The programme gives it as ‘Anon.’, but both my Alfred Deller recording and Grove cite the composer John Wilson for this song from Measure for Measure. After a very moving speech by Lear on the death of Cordelia (King Lear), the choir sang ‘When David heard that Absalon was slain’ by Thomas Tomkins, continuing the theme of loss of a child. Some awkward harmonic clashes were negotiated with ease; this was complex contrapuntal writing, but sung exquisitely.
One of Prospero’s stirring speeches from Act V of The Tempest followed, and then a Latin motet by Byrd ‘O magnum misterium’ (usually spelt ‘mysterium’) made a glorious sound, though the basses again were a little too dominant at times. Nevertheless, it was a very fine performance. Douglas Lilburn’s setting of ‘The Willow Song’ followed, sung by Juliet Kennedy, accompanied on the piano. This song has received sundry arrangements; I have heard it on radio not infrequently, played on guitar. It was good to hear it with the words.
After a final oration from Prospero, we came to the wonderful song that named the concert. Although the choir was not quite together at the opening, the blend improved. This is surely one of the most gorgeous choral songs in the English language. The words are integral to the sound; obviously Vaughan Williams was much inspired by Shakespeare. It made an uplifting end to an evening’s entertainment of excellent quality.