Baroque Voices pay rich homage to NZ “Masters”

Baroque Voices presents:
Alleluia: a newë work! – “Memories of our Masters”

Music inspired by medieval/ancient songs or texts
by Anon, Guillaume de Machaut, Guillaume Dufay –
Music by Jack Body, Ross Harris, and David Farquhar,
and some of their past students – Helen Bowater, Alison Isadora,
John Psathas, Pepe Becker, Mark Smythe, Michael Norris, and Ewan Clark

Baroque Voices: Pepe Becker (director), Jane McKinlay, Anna Sedcole, Katherine Hodge, Phillip Collins, Kenneth Trass, Jeffrey Chang, Timothy Hurd

Adam Concert Room, NZSM, Kelburn

Sunday, 28th May 2017

This concert was the eighth in the “Alleluia: a newë work” series by Baroque Voices, the idea being, in director Pepe Becker’s own words, to “present works from the early music era alongside modern compositions”, an undertaking which the group first instigated as long ago as 1995. Though the presentations have been consistent in their overall approach, the ensemble has managed to maintain an ever-fascinating and invariably rewarding range of repertoire for the delight of audiences over the duration, this latest undertaking being no exception.

In Pepe Becker’s programme note, she gave a brief resume of the group’s characteristic presentation aims and explorations, by way of reminding us of music’s capacities for both connectiveness and renewal in remarking on audience responses to what she calls “ageless connection” of old and new music in Baroque Voices’ past concerts.

Simply looking over the list of instrumental resources used at various times by a vocal group suggested to me the omniverous inclinations of its performing philosophy! The list’s diversity (hurdy-gurdy, didgeridoo, taonga puoro, electric guitar!) reminded me of similarly far-flung impulses expressed recently in her “Lilburn Lecture” by New Zealand composer Jenny McLeod, talking with her audience about what constituted her “creative heritage”. For her, it was practically a case of “anything goes!”, a kind of “all experience is valid” way of working, a statement of unique truth. If not from exactly the same cloth, the work of Baroque Voices demonstrates a similarly exploratory set of inclinations, a “this is who we are” way of performing and communicating.

Here in tonight’s concert were examples of most of the above performance principles – settings by contemporary and slightly older composers inspired by and set alongside “ancient” works, the latter from sources as diverse as Medieval Europe and 8th Century Japan, as well as creative responses to “modern” works (twentieth century poetry). While most of the works were “a capella” , two were piano-accompanied, and one was flavoured by strains from medieval instruments.

Where the concert’s “official record” above requires further elaboration is in the human inter-connectiveness of it all, a quality which Pepe Becker took some pains to set out in her written notes. It suggests a remarkable collegial quality among local (New Zealand) composers, one I’ve heard remarked upon in the past by people visiting this country, a willingness to interact, with all the teaching and learning that the process implies.

Of course there are and have been notable exceptions, here and there – but the rule is reflected in the willingness and readiness of the concert’s younger composers to pay tribute through their music to their teachers and colleagues, who were mentors and friends. One of the “teachers”, Ross Harris, was quoted as saying that “In the 80s with Jack (Body) and David (Farquhar) teaching…….it was a very good time to be a composition student”. Elsewhere, other tributes were paid to “the inimitable Jack”, as well as to Ross Harris himself.

There were too many “moments per minute” throughout the evening’s music-making for a reviewer to try and do them all full justice – enough for my descriptions to try and convey something of the music’s expressive range in tandem with the performers’ manifest skills and focused intensities. The concert’s first half seemed to me to have a slightly “older” feel, due, perhaps to a predominance of works from the “teachers” and “mentors”, as well as music from two of the earliest “named” composers featured on the programme, de Machaut and Dufay. After that, by and large, it was the pupils’ turn to pay their deeply-felt homages to the teachers.What better way to begin the evening than with a spirited and deeply-rooted rendition of the 15th Century carol Alleluia: a newë work! , a performance which combined beauty and earthiness in its purity of sound and heartfelt vocal energies.

Those same qualities informed the infectious Nowell: sing we, also from the 15th Century, with the vocal concertino/ripieno contrasts between smaller and larger groups characterfully differentiated in both dynamic and tonal variation. The group chose to bracket with this Jack Body’s Nowell in the Lithuanian Manner (1995), featuring four singers in pairs placed diagonally across the platform, singing “phrase-and-answer” in intervals of a second, the voices “leapfrogging” one another (to use the composer’s expression) most effectively.

Guillaume de Machaut’s Kyrie from La Messe de Nostre Dame was sung most sonorously and beautifully by the full ensemble, the lines concerning themselves for most of their contourings with the opening syllables of the words KY-rie and CHRI-ste, resolving each word’s remainder only towards the ends of the sequences – an extraordinary “suspended” effect, generating some tension as one waited for each contouring’s resolution, thus heightening the pleadings for “Mercy”.

This was followed by Pepe Becker’s own composition, Mass of the False Relation,  which I’d heard before, though not in such a context – the opening “Kyrie” featured two voices set at an interval of a second , before the textures were opened, to pleading and beseeching effect. The sequence had something of a “lyke-wake dirge” atmosphere, unsettling and unpeaceful, with high soprano lines effectively putting one in mind of a cry for mercy from an abyss! A calmer, more circumspect “Christe” gathered increasing emotional momentum, before reverting to a differently constituted “Kyrie” to finish, the singers clustering their lines together with great aplomb and considerable emotional focus – brief, but effective!

Relief of sorts was afforded by the beautiful hymn Ave Maris Stella, sung in its original unision throughout verses 1 and 3, but adopting Guillaume Dufay’s setting for the second verse in which the women’s voices break into three parts and beautifully and gracefully explore the firmament. Composer Ross Harris’s response to the original chant followed, originally a 2009 commission by Baroque Voices, here making a welcome and sonorous reappearance.

A striking opening featured a tenor solo soaring above a pedal-point, joined by other individual lines awakening their own impulses to soar, float and beautifully elaborate on the original. Thanks to the intensity and focus of the performance’s individual voice-strands, I felt a real sense of those lines filling their own spaces, but also wrapping their resonances around a kind of central impulse of thought and intention as the work unfolded.

The ensemble at Virgo singularis (Virgin all excelling), generated a tremendous upsurging of intensity, to dramatic, scalp-prickling effect, as did the salutations to the Trinity of the last verse, particularly those invocations to Spiritui Sancto (the Holy Spirit), a display of visceral intensity which contrasted tellingly with the hushed resignation and peace of all things at the final reiteration of the words Ave Maris Stella.

Further back in “teacherdom” than either Jack Body or Ross Harris was David Farquhar, whose 1990 setting of a characteristically quirky set of verses no one and anyone by American poet ee cummings was commissioned and first peformed by Jones and Co., the Australian vocal ensemble. Farquhar described cummings punctuation-less (!) poetry as “slow-moving and lyrical” and “ideal for singing”, and his own quirkily responsive set of creative impulses proved a fitting foil for the poet’s idiosyncrasies of expression.

The “once upon a time” introduction floated the words “anyone lived in a pretty how town”, with a dancing wordless rhythm augmenting the poet’s metre at “he sang his didn’t he danced his did”. Then there were gorgeous harmonies at “she laughed his joy she cried his grief”, and lovely differentiations of rhythm with the different groupings of “sequence” words, such as “sleep wake hope and then”, which danced; and “stars rain sun moon” which was spaced-out, the singers creating limpid pools of light floating over deeper-hued pedal points.

The somewhat matter-of-fact “one day anyone died I guess” began as something angular and dry, which slowly amplified into something more heroic and deeply felt, Baroque Voices splendidly resonating the lines “no one and anyone earth by april” with great stepwise progressions of singing. I loved the crepuscular feeling evoked towards the end, with the ensemble gorgeously resonating evening bells at “women and men (both dong and ding)”, etching detail along the lines to beguiling effect – definitely a work I would like to hear performed again, sometime!

Very different to the featherlight play of ee cummings word-music was Pepe Becker’s heartfelt, almost Tristanesque text for her 2010 work Remembering Now – “a reflection upon love and loss – personal and universal”. Two singers performed the work alongside a piano with its sustaining pedal activated, the instrument thus providing a sympathetic resonance activated by the sung tones, especially when the dynamic levels began to rise. The vocal lines of the singers had, to my ears, a pronounced medieval intertwining in places, with elsewhere, some great vocal leaps to characterise the extremes of emotion – “Eternal depth, exquisite pain, secret union, keep me safe”, and some tightly-woven intervals reflecting in certain places the pain of loss and the jarring tensions of uncertainty.

Known more of late as a film composer, Ewan Clark had previously written works in a wide range of genres, among which was this ballad-like setting of James K.Baxter’s poem Never no more, dating from 2007. With voices accompanied by two pianos, the music and words created a flow of detailed and varied remembrance, a plainer-spoken New Zealander’s version of Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill” with its aching lament for lost youth, the music here responsive to incident and ever-ready to wrap its evocations of “golden lads and lasses” in swathes of deep mourning and oblivion. Particularly desolate was the final “never no more never no more”, playing out to something hollow and empty.

Part Two of the concert began with rather more sardonic, grim-humoured tones, an energetic dance of death Ad mortem festinamus, a 14th Century composition linked to the time of the Black Death, and expressing fatalistic sentiments very much in accord with what must have been an everyday experience for many people. The dotted dance-rhythms had a kind of horrid glee, allied to an almost festive quality enhanced by the ambient instrumentations, a dulcian, drum and “shruti box”, the latter a kind of harmonium which supplied a drone, altogether creating a wry ritualistic statement.

Ritual of a different kind coloured the work of Michael Norris, a setting of a poem by one Pierre Reverdy, described by the composer as ‘a lesser-known French proto-surrealist’, whose creative work involved a “sublime simplicity of reality”, and whose words suggest a kind of transcendence of substance towards abstraction – for Norris, a process suggesting “an inevitable movement from presence to absence”, very much an underlying theme of this concert (for which this work was written).

To the names that have left is a line from the poem “The traits of the sky” which Norris used as his piece’s title, a reference to whom the composer described as “some important men in my life who left us in the last few years”. It was obviously a piece which suggested feelings of loss in its juxtapositioning of long-held tones and sudden, sharply-etched irruptions of either violent noise or silence – characterisations of the unexpected, either explosive or insinuating. We heard sliding (glissando) notes, voices overlapping, unison and harmonies, some magnificently rich modulations, then textures cut to pieces by confrontational thrusts. There were yelps, breathings, elongated word pronunciations, almost didgerie-doo-like textures. Eventually the voices seemed to gather girth and vocalise as with long slow breaths, until we became aware of the “dying fall” of the lines, a sense of something “running down” or drifting away. Women’s voices imitated high, sustained bird-calls (farewells?) after which the singers put their hands over their mouths to mute their tones at the end.

An anonymous 15th Century English Carol Lully, lullay: I saw – was next, featuring two groups of two voices placed opposite one another, immediately sounded its time, helped by some lovely singing, mostly interactive of phrasing, greating a gorgeous effect. The same text was then re-enacted in a work by John Psathas, entitled Baw my barne, an old favourite of Baroque Voices, having been commissioned and premiered by the group in its first “a newë work!” concert in November of 1995. Beginning with richly-wrought note-clusters over which the soprano soloist’s voice hovered, the clustered lines were reiterated one-by-one, depicting in sound a kind of burgeoning of motherly bliss with a newborn allied to a sense of “a blissful burd, a blossom bright” as creation wondered at the Saviour’s coming.

Helen Bowater’s setting of a Japanese poem from antiquity (found in an 8th-9th Century AD collection of Japanese poetry “Man’yoshu”) hoshi no hayashi (in the forest of stars) gave us some gorgeous word-painting, with some particularly evocative, almost other-worldly singing from Pepe Becker – as with the poetry, the impression of the music was a kind of “stream of consciousness” which belied the precision of the craftsmanship to remarkable effect. Something of the same spontaneous and on-going outpouring of tones characterised Jack Body’s fifth Lullaby from the set of Five Lullabies, a work which was first performed in full by the Tudor Consort. Having watched the performance by Baroque Voices on You Tube given at Jack Body’s memorial service, I thought this evening’s performance was less contained and reverential, more flowing and intense, with a more clearly-delineated shape of rise and fall – again, very beautiful, with the dreaming especially vivid.

I liked Eve de Castro-Robinson’s comment, quoted, and indeed affirmed, by Alison Isadora, the composer of the programme’s penultimate work Blessing (in memoriam Jack Body), regarding how memorial pieces often write themselves. Isadora described her work on this occasion as “the output of a grieving process”, by way of expressing her tribute to Jack in three languages, plus the translations, Maori, Latin and English. After expressing Maori, Latin and English texts in turn, the piece combined elements of all three blessings, in places bringing out contrasts whose different characters produced extraordinary sounds – insistent lower voices setting the Latin plainsong against the bell-like women’s voices with their Taize chant, and colouring the textures differently as the music moved forwards, the differently-constituted textures surging and breaking like ocean waves, before the sopranos guided the intensities towards gentler cadences and brought the music to a close.

A kind of “return to our lives” was in order at the point of conclusion, here supplied by Mark Smythe’s 2007 Alleluia, one which Pepe Becker described as a “signature tune” for Baroque Voices, while very much a stratospheric soprano display piece, with both singers, Pepe and Jane McKinlay in sure touch, even at the end of a long and demanding concert, resounding their “Alleluias” as steadily and ambiently as ever. Very great credit to the whole ensemble, both for the works which have been encouraged into “being”, and for the group’s inspired performances of them.

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