Highly diverting Orpheus Choir mixes seasonal Haydn with animals and cloudbursts

The Orpheus Choir conducted by Brent Stewart with Thomas Nikora (piano) and Michael Fletcher (organ) 
A concert aimed to take full advantage of the Cathedral’s acoustic.

Programme included: Kondalilla by Stephen Leek
Selections from Haydn’s The Seasons
and Lux Aurumque by Eric Whitacre
Dirait-on by Morten Lauridsen (in place of the earlier announced Missa Gaia {Mass for the Earth} by Libby Larsen)

Wellington Cathedral of Saint Paul

Saturday 12 November, 7:30 pm

What is detailed above, as well as a statement that further details would be announced, is the information about this concert we had received and had filed in our Coming Events, but no ‘further details’ arrived: no soloists named, no organist or piano accompanist; not even the name of the conductor, though one knew that.

As we entered, we were handed a folded A4 page with the greeting – “just the words” and adding, “there is no programme”. That was a rather unfortunate omission; there may have been a sound reason for it, such as the imminence of a major earthquake, or the recent election in the Northern Hemisphere, but….

Not only am I a strong advocate of printed programmes, preferably of modest, non-luxurious design and cost, but I also think it’s important that they are free, as the notes in a programme are one of the few means by which a now poorly musically-educated public can improve their ability to recognise the difference between Palestrina and Puccini.

Conductor Brent Stewart did speak about the music and the performers, but without proper amplification, much of what he said was hard to grasp, especially beyond about six rows from the front (there was a pretty full cathedral).

However, the concert began propitiously, men streaming in to stand across the front of the Choir while women filed up the north aisle to the west end. One became aware of a low murmur, initially mistaken for the heavy rain, but slowly growing to create the expectant sound of a big audience awaiting the start of an exciting performance. That was the way it worked for me, and I forgot the no-programme matter, to be won over by this ‘special occasion’ atmosphere.

Stephen Leek’s Kondalilla depicts the spirit of a waterfall in south-eastern Queensland. There was an arresting multiplicity of motifs, harmonies, chaotic or inchoate from the men, mainly, which slowly died away on a rising fourth. Then a new feminine sound arrived, birds, the sounds of wind instruments.

Lighting was an important element, mainly trained on the pillars on either side of the choir.

Haydn’s The Seasons
Lighting was used to characterise the seasons in the following performance of selections from Haydn’s oratorio on that subject. The Spring cantata was celebrated with a lightish pink which echoed the charming, dotted rhythms of the first Chorus of Country People.

Though Haydn had set the German text, we heard an English translation by Margaret Bosden and Barbara Cook; English has some claim on the work as Baron von Swieten (probably a friend of Mozart more than Haydn) based his text on James Thomson’s poem, The Seasons, and after Haydn’s composition was finished he did a translation back into English as the composer wanted it to be accessible in both languages.

The work was of course composed for the normal classical orchestra, but here the cathedral organ stood in; though Michael Fletcher (Director of Music at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart) handled the registrations imaginatively, the fact that the work employs colourful orchestral sounds to accompany the moods of the seasons, seemed to make rather special demands. Demands that, it seemed to me, are more easily met by many human beings on many instruments than through the fairly inflexible mechanical sounds from an organ, no matter how versatile it or the player is.

The big choir was well balanced and produced sounds of vitality and elasticity, dividing between men and women, occasional duets, while the soprano soloist here, and at various later stages, produced luminous and interesting seasonal portrayal. In the Summer cantata light became a warm white for the word painting of a summer landscape and a joyous trio of voices created a sense of peace; until the organ interrupted with a lightning flash of a descending scale announcing a summer electrical storm in which the choir and conductor generated plenty of visual and sonic drama.

Other singers took a variety of solo roles; without names I could not identify them, but these were the names of the Orpheus Scholars that I was given later: Alex Gandionco, Alexandra Woodhouse-Appleby, Karishma Thanawala, Pasquale Orchard, plus a non-Orpheus Scholar bass, Minto Fung.

After a solo and chorus from Autumn and the chilly, drifting Introduction and recitative from Winter, the choir returned to Spring for a suitably apostrophe to God.

After the interval, the music returned to pieces by prominent American choral composers, Eric Whitacre (again) and Morten Lauridsen.

Lauridsen’s ‘Dirait-on’, the poem, one of the five of Rilke’s Les Chansons des Roses.  (Did Rilke write much in French?). The setting is one of the signs of the growing rejection of abrasive, alienating music that has driven audiences away in recent decades: there are curious sounds of pop styles, sentimental but not cheap. And the performance sustained those characteristics with enthusiasm and enjoyment.

Whitacre’s Lux aurumque and Animal Crackers
First Lux aurumque (‘light and gold’), which Edward Esch had written in English. When he showed it to Whitacre, the latter asked Charles Silvestri to translate it into Latin as Whitacre likes the sounds of Latin (so do I). Inevitably, Latinists have criticised it for not being quite the way Virgil or Horace would have written it.

The choir split up allowing the soprano voices slowly to fill the big space, pinned by a long-held soprano ‘pedal’ note (if that’s not a sort of oxymoron). Very evocative, emotionally involving, accompanied by Thomas Nikora on the piano.

Eric Whitacre returned with his famous Animal Crackers to Ogden Nash’s Carnival of the Animals-style verses E.g. ‘The cow is of the bovine ilk / One end is moo, the other milk’. There was laughter.

And the concert ended with another Whitacre venture into foreign language – Spanish poet Octavio Paz’ El cantaro roto (‘The broken water-jar’), which Whitacre called ‘Cloudburst’. Programme notes might well have explained some of these matters. Distinguished Mexican poet, Paz, by the way, is characterised in Wikipedia: “He is considered by many as one of the most influential writers of the 20th century and one of the greatest poets of all time.” Quite a statement!

There were long-held pedal notes, prolonged, underlying murmuring, dense harmonic clusters, sprechstimme interventions,  heavy breathing, little chimes from hand-bells, accompanied later by enigmatic revolving and gesturing hand movements, finger-clicking by the choir members; bass drum, other percussive effects and some piano offerings as the music dies away. One can understand how it and Whitacre’s music in general has swept the choral world!

2 thoughts on “Highly diverting Orpheus Choir mixes seasonal Haydn with animals and cloudbursts

  1. Angela Werren says:

    Sorry to quibble. Aurum is Latin for gold. Thus the title of Whitacre’s work is Lux Aurumque (not Arumque). Three instances: in the list at the top and twice in the paragraph further down. Lauridsen needs his d in the list at the top.

    • Lindis Taylor says:

      Thanks for that. I have university Latin and know the word perfectly well. And I gave the correct translation in the body of the review, but after my finger missed the first ‘u’ in the heading, I kept ‘not seeing’ it.
      Duly fixed.


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