Forty years celebrated by Wainuiomata Choir, in excellent spirits with fine choral music

Celebration Concert – singing in the valley for 40 years

Music by Bruckner, Handel, Stainer, Clausen, Mendelssohn, Fauré, Seiber, Purcell, Praetorius, Tavener, Rheinberger, Te Rangi Pai and Leonard Cohen

Wainuiomata Choir, Musical Director Sue Robinson, accompanist Elizabeth Marrison, with string ensemble and Fiona McCabe (piano)

St. Mark’s Church, Woburn, Lower Hutt

Sunday, 8 May 2015, 3.30pm

The concert, first performed in Wainuiomata a week earlier, consisted mainly of items performed at significant concerts during the choir’s history, such as the ten-years anniversary. The choir was formed by John Knox soon after his return from several years working in London, where he sang in the Bach Choir, conducted by the famous Sir David Willcocks. John’s collaborator was Bill McCabe, Fiona’s father. John Knox conducted the choir for many years; others have followed.

Not only but also, Knox was chair of the Orpheus Choir of Wellington for a considerable period, where he facilitated a number of important events, not least bringing Sir David to New Zealand to conduct it and other choirs, including the Wainuiomata Choir This started a pattern of frequent visits here by Sir David. John started the annual choral workshops in Wellington, run by the Wellington Region of the New Zealand Choral Federation, which are still going. There were other initiatives too.

The choir still boasts two original members, one of whom gave brief historical notes at the conclusion of the performance. Their fine accompanist has been with them for 15 years, and Fiona McCabe was accompanist in the past; she told us of the encouragement she received from John Knox, and that she first accompanied at the age of ten!

Several items were sung a cappella, including the first, ‘Locus Iste’ by Bruckner. This sublime motet is treacherous; while beautiful and evocative (‘This place was made by God, a priceless sacrament, it is without reproach’), it presents intonation difficulties. Here, there was a strong bass line and good tenors who did not fall into the traps that are there for them, but the women’s tuning dropped a little at times. The choir sang with pleasing tone, enunciation and vitality.

‘Let God arise’ is from one of Handel’s Chandos Anthems. The performance with strings and Fiona McCabe playing the piano was commendable. The level of piano tone was just right for choir and strings not to be overwhelmed. The piano lid was on neither long stick nor short stick, but resting on a hymn-book, so it was just slightly open. Timing and rhythm were excellent, as was the handling of florid passages – so important to making baroque music live. Through all the items attacks and cut-offs were precise.

‘God so loved the world’ from Stainer’s Crucifixion is another a cappella item that can so easily go flat. The phrasing and dynamics were paid more than adequate attention, but falling notes sometimes fell a little far. Nevertheless, it was a worthy performance. ‘Set me as a seal’ by René Clausen was not quite so successful. Repeated notes were sometimes flat, but otherwise the performance was satisfactory. Words came over well.

Mendelssohn’s lovely ‘He watching over Israel’ from Elijah fared better. A good pace was maintained, and the choir sang with verve. Mendelssohn’s soaring melodies came through thoughtfully and joyously. Another highlight in the choral repertoire is Fauré’s Requiem. The ‘In Paradisum’ movement is demanding to sing (and pitch suffered here, too), but it is ecstatic music of an elevated quality that is utterly uplifting.

There followed a sequence of dances (tango, foxtrot, habanera etc. – about 12 in all) for piano duet by Mátyás Seiber, played by Elizabeth Marrison and Sue Robinson. The pieces were quite delightful, and the duetists played very well together, always spot on. The music was fun, but with due credit to the pianists, the concert would have stood on its own without these, coming as they did just before the interval, when the choristers would get a break anyway.

The ‘Sailors’ Chorus’ and ‘Sailors’ Dance’ from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas were given vivacious, characterful rendition, facial expression and a certain amount of physical movement adding to the animated nature of the music, much enhanced by the playing of the strings and piano.

Animation remained for the chorus ‘And the glory of the Lord’ from Messiah. As in other places, Sue Robinson made brief comments, sometimes humorous, about the pieces as well as mentioning the occasions on which the choir had previously sung them. All parts were accurate here, although the fine tenor section was a little too loud sometimes.

Next up was ‘Jubilate Deo’ by Praetorius. Sue Robinson taught the audience to sing this brief utterance as a 6-part round, and very successfully, too. The choir were distributed around the audience to assist. There’s an innovation other choirs could follow!

While the attacks in Tavener’s ‘Mother of God here I stand’ were excellent, some drop in intonation crept in again, and high notes were a bit shrill. These things are, of course, more obvious in a cappella items. Rheinberger’s ‘Abendlied’ followed, then an arrangement by Dorothy Buchanan of ‘Hine e hine’. It began with English words, with the chorus in Maori followed by a verse in Maori. I did not particularly like the elaborate piano accompaniment (though no reflection on the accompanist); the simple but effective melodies seemed compromised by the former.

The final song was ‘Hallelujah’ by Leonard Cohen, in an arrangement by Roger Emerson. Here again, the audience was invited to join in, in the chorus.

It was an ambitious programme, particularly with the number of a cappella items. The choir is fortunate to have many good singers, particularly in the male departments, where choirs are often deficient. The audience was treated to a sampler of very fine choral music, and the choir could feel confident in looking forward to another forty years of enjoyable music-making.