Music from all the continents
Inspirare ‘Wellington’s newest choral ensemble’ conducted by Mark Stamper, with Catherine Norton (piano), Jeremy Fitzsimons and Ben Fullbrook (percussion)
St. Andrew’s on The Terrace
Sunday, 4 September 2016, 3pm
Described in advance publicity as ‘a new professional choir’ and that ‘The concert will consist of music from all the continents and will explore our basic needs to commune with nature, spirituality and our love of community and family’, there were high expectations. Caution recalls that some years ago Professor Peter Godfrey set up a choir that he hoped would be professional, but it did not last. Such a venture needs engagements, sponsors. We shall see…
American Mark Stamper came to live in Wellington last year, with both qualifications and experience in choral music in the USA. Among the names listed in the printed programme were many that I recognised; people very experienced in choral singing and some who conduct choirs themselves. Many of the items performed were unaccompanied, but those that required the piano were in the safe musical hands of Catherine Norton. Spoken introductions were interesting, but perhaps a little excessive, given the good programme notes, and not always audible despite the use of a microphone.
The concert did not have a good beginning; i.e. seven minutes late. However, the choir certainly made its presence felt as soon as it began singing, although it did not impress me that the members were dressed entirely in black, like every other choir. What happened to colour? The opening item, ‘At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners’ was a setting of one of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets by Williametta Spencer, an American composer born in 1932. It began at full volume; this revealed the capacity of the singers at such a dynamic level to produce splendid tone, and also the marvellous acoustic of St. Andrew’s. It was a fine piece, with flair (rather than the ‘flare’ of the programme note), ‘excitement and driving energy’.
It was followed with virtually no break by Handel’s well-known ‘Zadok the Priest’, accompanied on the piano – which sound somewhat incongruous since we are accustomed to hearing a chamber orchestra, or at least organ in this jubilant Coronation Anthem. The words were clear and the voices well-projected.
It was very sensible, in a shortish programme with a lot of different items, to perform two or even three items without space for applause in between. The next coupling had the exquisite ‘Bogorodiste Devo’ from Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil usually known in English as his Vespers) first. The choir had good balance and lovely blended tone, particularly in the pianissimo sections. After two loud items, this was welcome, but the piece featured great dynamic contrasts – not all quiet. The choir almost achieved a Russian tone – but we don’t breed quite the same sort of basses
Pärt was the other part of the pair: his Magnificat. This is probably one of his more frequently performed works, and while characterised by the tintinnabuli style, with its apparent simplicity and repetition, it was nevertheless of considerable musical interest. However, since he has had many imitators, I have to disagree with the programme note that the presence of a drone in many phrases is a unique feature; it may have been when he wrote it. A pupil of St. Mark’s School, Bella Martin, conveyed these repeated notes. Her voice was perhaps a little thin, but against the basses singing below, it was very effective. and a boy from the same school, Zach Newton, sang his solo well. Before that, the piece had two sopranos singing together. The spare writing contrasted with denser passages
Moving to South Africa, we heard Chariots, by Péter Louis van Dijk, a contemporary composer. His was a most telling setting, especially in the repetition throughout of the syllable ‘char’ from the title. There was plenty of punch, although the performance was not perfect, with a few singers starting ahead of the beat several times. But that is a mere quibble against the high quality, gorgeous tone of most of the singing.
Ola Gjeilo is a Norwegian-born composer and pianist, living in the United States. His Ubi Caritas was a quiet, contemplative piece of harmonic charm. It was followed by another African item: Vamuvmba, in which Jeremy Fitzsimons played an African instrument like large maraca, and Ben Fullbrook on drum featured largely. The singers made a joyful, highly rhythmic noise.
Ginastera’s ‘O vos Omnes’ from his Lamentations of Jeremiah the Prophet was very much ‘in your face’, or rather, ‘in your ears’. The beginning was very loud; as the programme note stated ‘…diverse textures that are very percussive and at times “raw”.’ It contains ‘vocal pyrotechnics’.
New Zealander (but US resident) David Childs wrote ‘The New Moon’, also had a loud opening; it was a striking setting of the words of a poem by Sara Teasdale, an American poet (1884 – 1933). This was an accompanied piece, with modal shifts and interesting harmonies in both voice and instrument parts.
Sandra Milliken is a contemporary Australian composer. ‘The Dawn Wind’ was another piece with great word setting. The chordal movement was very affecting, as the music painted pictures of nature at dawn beautifully. The following ‘The Sounding Sea’ by Eric William Barnum, another American, was, like its predecessor, unaccompanied. Sounds of the sea were repeated, while harmonic clashes gave a marvellous effect, and were handled with aplomb. Special effects including stamping, like crashing waves, and noisy breathing, hissing like the last vestiges of smooth waves on the shore.
A piece not listed in the programme I gathered was by Mark Stamper himself: ‘Remembrance’ It featured lovely legato singing. The setting included some lovely word-painting. The words were ‘Do not stand at my grave and weep’, a poem frequently read at funerals; it came over clearly in this stunning performance of unaccompanied singing.
The mood changed completely in ‘The Battle of Jericho’ by Moses Hogan. The very rhythmic setting was lively, busy and striking. There was notable unanimity between the singers. Each part was absolutely together.
The final item was specially commissioned. ‘Hutia te rito’: the title refers to the growing stem of harakeke (New Zealand flax). The translation of the traditional chant which provided the basis for the composition by American Zachary J. Moore, is ‘If you remove the central shoot of the flaxbush, where will the bellbird find rest? If you were to ask me, “What is the most important thing in the world?” I would reply “It is people, it is people, it is people.”
Before the performance, the Maori woman who gave the words to be used spoke, and also a gentleman from the Maori Language Commission. The latter described the words of the chant as being used frequently in Maori speech-making.
A largely youthful audience attended, and gave enthusiastic response to the performance. However, I got the impression it was made up to a large extent of friends and families; the church was well-filled but not full (downstairs only). This was a good launch of a new choir.
“Since singing is so good a thing I wish all men would learn to sing” sixteenth-century composer William Byrd said these words. He might be astonished to see how many choirs there are in Wellington now. Therein lies the problem – how to get audiences for all the concerts. Singing is good for its own sake, but to sustain all the choirs financially, and to spread the pleasure, audiences are needed.
In addition to a record amount of opera over the same period, I find that between 20 August and 15 October (i.e. eight weeks) there have been/will be 13 choral concerts, mostly on Sundays. Two choirs are competing for attention on 2 October. I can think of half-a dozen other choirs that are not performing during this period. Surely more co-ordination is needed? And pity the poor reviewers!