New Zealand Youth Choir, conducted by David Squire
Sacred Heart Cathedral, Hill Street
Sunday, 29 May 2016, 3pm
The choir is shortly to depart on an overseas tour, mainly in Europe and the United Kingdom, and including a choral competition in the Czech Republic. This was one of two farewell concerts; the other is to be in Auckland on 26 June.
There were plenty of people to wish the choir well on its travels – virtually a capacity audience. The concert began with the choir slowly processing into the cathedral singing plainchant that was a combination of Latin and Maori: ‘Te lucis ante terminum’ plus a karanga. It was very unusual but effective. The voices were resonant and the choir’s enunciation was superb, though it was difficult to hear words because of the mixture of languages.
The choir continued in Maori with the action song ‘Te iwi e’ by the Wehi whanau. It was exciting, words and actions utterly precise, most enthusiastically performed and received. The programme items were introduced by Morag Atchison, vocal consultant to the choir which sang the entire repertoire without music scores.
We then reverted to the Latin, in a 1613 antiphon by Peter Phillips (or Philips) ‘Ecce vicit leo’. Part of the choir sang from the gallery, the remainder from the front of the church. Despite this physical distance, the choir’s timing was perfect, and the effect splendid. Felix Mendelssohn wrote much music with Christian texts; here we had ‘Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe’, a Youth Choir favourite. It made a rich sound, and there was great attention to correct pronunciation of the German language, which could be heard to good effect in this building (compared with some others). However, I did not find the soloists (from the choir) pleasing in tone or voice production; it seemed that they were forcing their voices at times.
New Zealand’s premier choral composer, David Hamilton (a former choir member) was represented by his recent composition ‘Angele Dei’. The choir was distributed on three sides of the cathedral. The musical setting was gorgeous. The basses were near my seat, and sang vibrant low pianissimo notes – spine-tingling. Although the blend of the choir was impressive, this is not a white sound; the voices have tone, movement and variety of quality. Attacks and cut-offs were immaculate throughout the concert, as was intonation; all items except one were unaccompanied. All the features of a fine choir were here, yet these singers rehearse together for only a few weeks each year.
Of the 49 singers, many are still students, while others work in a variety of occupations. The traditional regional roll-call found that the largest number from a single location were Wellingtonians (either residents or at university here).
We moved back in time again, to Peter Cornelius’s ‘Chorgesänge’. The nineteenth-century composer’s piece featured solo tenor Manase Latu. What a fine voice he has! The choir, for its part, was in utter unanimity in its dynamic variations and all produced a good forward tone. A feature of their singing in a number of items was the singing of resonant, sustained letters n, m, and l at the ends of words.
A work by Tuirina Wehi, arranged by Robert Wiremu followed. This was a major composition, commemorating the battle in what was known as Te Kooti’s war: ‘Waerenga-a-Hika’ It was sung in English and Maori, representing opposing forces of the 1865 battle. Natasha Wilson was soloist; she has a strong but musical voice, and can produce all the subtleties of Maori vocal style. It was not possible to pick up all the English words because they were overlaid with Maori ones, but the effect was dramatic. The textures became very thick, in a satisfying way. It was an amazing performance; all the more so because the choir was at the front of the church, while conductor David Squire stood towards the back.
After the interval, Vaughan Williams: ‘Full fathom five’, ‘The cloud-capp’d towers’, and ‘Over hill, over dale’, which the choir sang previously in Wellington during the 2014 New Zealand Festival, were performed. Vaughan Williams’s mellifluous writing was enhanced by the subtlety of the choir’s performance and the ‘ding dong’ bells in the first song were very resonant. The second song is one I simply love – the pianissimo harmonies are so luscious; it was sung to excellent effect. Contrasting with that, ‘Over hill, over dale’ sparkled.
Something I noticed about this concert compared with orchestral concerts – and it may be partly because there are words to listen to – was that the audience was more attentive. Coughing was very rare. Another important factor in this concert was the pleasant, involved facial expressions of the choir members– not overdone, but unlike those of some choirs I have heard, whose members look absent, as if they would rather be somewhere else.
Matthew Harris is a contemporary American composer. His setting of ‘O mistress mine’ was charming, while Canadian R. Murray Schafer’s ‘Epitaph for Moonlight’, with words by a group of 12-year-olds, had a number of aural effects of various kinds. The choir was spread around the church again, this time on all four sides. The opening humming by the women was in descending tones and semi-tones. The sustaining of quiet tones was remarkable. Some of the louder singing became rather shrill, if they were right behind one!
New Zealand composer Sarah McCallum (a former member of the choir) was the composer of the next song, ‘The moon’s glow once lit”. It began with women humming, then moving to words in harmony. The men join in, this time unusually on the right with the women on the left. It is a thoughtful song, with interesting harmonies and piquant, affecting melodies. It portrayed well an atmosphere of night-time under the moon’s glow.
Eric Whitacre is a prolific and successful American choral composer. His ‘Little man in a hurry’ was an amusing perpetuum mobile choral song with an equally busy and lively piano accompaniment, played by Dean Sky-Lucas.
The final item was a traditional spiritual ‘This little light of mine’, arranged by Moses Hogan, and sung with good Afro-American style and pronunciation. Soprano Natasha Wilson was again the soloist, strong, but beautiful. The arrangement was quite fantastical, and made a rousing end to the concert. An enthusiastic standing ovation from the audience led inevitably to an encore: a bluesy American song, ‘The nearness of you’, beginning ‘It’s not the pale moon that excites me’, by Norah Jones.
Good programming of great music, superb control, discipline and skill of conductor and choir added up to a memorable night’s experience. Go well in Europe, New Zealand Youth Choir!