Choral singing flourishes in Wellington region Big Sing gala concert

New Zealand Choral Federation Secondary Schools’ Choral Festival
Big Sing, second gala concert

Michael Fowler Centre

Thursday, 8 June 2017, 7.00pm

As I said in 2015 (in a review of the Big Sing National Finale concert), it is marvellous to find so many young people taking part in choirs and obviously enjoying it.  Apparently there are more choirs in the 2017 Festival than ever before, and it seems to me that the standard is always rising.  The fact that all the choirs learn all their pieces by heart is staggering to us mere adults who sing in choirs, to whom this is an almost overwhelming difficulty.  An excellent effect of memorisation is that for the most part, words come over clearly – not always the case when singers are constantly glancing down at printed copies.   Every eye here was on the conductors – except for those few choirs who were able to perform without anyone standing in front of them to direct things.

This year, there will be 10 regional finales.  39 choirs participated in the two evening concerts (the other on Wednesday), from 22 schools in this region, plus one from Tauranga.  As always, the excitement in the hall and the large, enthusiastic audience made for a memorable occasion.  Compared with the first of these events I attended some years ago, not only is the number of participants much greater this time (choirs varied from about 20 members, to one of near 200), the audience is much larger.  Each choir sang one item, chosen from the three it had performed in the daytime sessions.

Everything is run with almost military precision by excellent young stage managing staff, plus the very professional but friendly manner of Christine Argyle, the compère.  The judge was well-known local soprano, Pepe Becker, who made helpful remarks at the awards presentation at the end, comparing attitudes required for singing to those for sport.

The performances were being recorded, so that the judges for the national finale later in the year could choose the best choirs from all the regional concerts.

The printed programme could not contain a lot of detail, but it would be an advantage to have the names of choir directors and composers printed in a less skinny, pale type-face, since during items the house lights are lowered completely, and in between items is a short space of time, such is the precision with which choirs move on and off the stage.

The first choir was Dawn Chorus from Tawa College – over 100-strong.  Like a number of the choirs, it has taken part in most, if not all, the regionals since The Big Sing began 29 years ago.  ‘The Seal Lullaby’, a peaceful song by American Eric Whitacre involved singing in both unison and harmony – the former is often harder than the latter.  Sections of ‘oo-oo’ singing were excellently done; the choir’s tone was good.

Tawa’s Early Birds, a small all-girls choir with a student director, came next singing ‘Homeward Bound’ by Marta Keen.  I found this song rather bland, and not the best suited to this group.

Yet a third Tawa College choir, Blue Notes, consisted of about 30 boys and girls.  Their item was by New Zealand composer David Childs: ‘Peace, my heart’.  This quite complex song was given a very restrained rendition.  It was accompanied by solo cellist Benjamin Sneyd-Utting.  It was a musically satisfying performance.

Whitby Samuel Marsden Collegiate’s 30-strong choir Viridi Vocem performed Gershwin’s well-known ‘Fascinating Rhythm’, the mixed choir employing actions to amplify the rhythm.  Words were clear, but the tone left something to be desired, and there was little variety.

Wellington College, and one of the other choirs, employed a professional accompanist.  Their chorale sang ‘Yo le canto’ by David Brunner, a contemporary American songwriter.  The rhythmic clapping enhanced the good sound the 35 boys made.  The harmony was extremely well rendered, and the intonation was spot on.  There was a feeling of unanimity in this spirited performance.

Boys from this school then combined with girls from Wellington Girls’ College to sing a spiritual ‘How can I keep from singing?’.  It was a very competent performance.

From across the city came 35-strong Wellington East Girls’ College Senior Choir.  They performed the ABBA song ‘Super Trouper’ by Barry Anderson and Björn Ulvaeus, with a student director.  I found the tone and dynamics unvarying.  Although words and notes were very clear, it was a dull performance – though the audience was enthusiastic to be hearing something they knew

The same school’s Multi Choir, of about 60 singers, sang ‘Ki Nga Tangata Katoa’, by Lernau Sio, the choir’s student director.  The performance was accompanied by guitar, and there was a student vocal soloist (amplified).  The choir made a robust, authentically Maori sound, and matched their excellent ensemble with appropriate actions.

From the Wairarapa came two schools forming one choir: Viva Camerata, with students from Rathkeale College and St. Matthew’s Collegiate.  They sang a traditional African Xhosa song, ‘Bawo Thixo Somandla’, transcribed by their director, Kiewet van Devente.  The performance incorporated a lot of movement.

The singing was very good, with a strong, forward sound.

Next came the largest choir of the evening, Wellington Girls’ College’s Teal – reflecting the colour of their school uniform.  Despite the choir’s large size, here was clarity plus, in the excellent performance of Gluck’s ‘Torna, O Bella’, the only truly classical piece we heard all night.  It was a delightful performance of this piece from Gluck’s opera Orpheus and Euridice.

The Year 9 Choir from the same school was smaller, but still numbered about 80 members.  They sang David Hamilton’s ‘Ave Maria’.  The sound was a little too restrained, with insufficient variation of dynamics, and the piano sounding a mite too loud.

New Zealand composer David Hamilton appeared again with yet another choir from Wellington Girls’ College – Teal Voices.  They sang his beautiful ‘My Song’.  And it was beautifully sung, with feeling, fabulous clarity and a great dynamic range.

Heretaunga College’s Phoenix Chorale gave us ‘Skyfall’ by Adele Adkins (not Atkins) and Paul Epworth.  The song is based on the theme music from the James Bond film of the same title.  I’m afraid I found it boring.  It began quietly, but later the singers pushed their voices unattractively.  The students’ faces showed no involvement or communication whatever.

Chilton St. James School in Lower Hutt has featured frequently in The Big Sing over the years.  Its first choir to sing was I See Red.  They sang ‘L’Dor Vador’, a Jewish song by Meir Finkelstein.  The approximately 40 singers sang with delightful tone; both notes and words were very clear.

The school’s second choir, Seraphim, performed a Basque song, by Eva Ugalde: ‘Tximeletak’.  Mastering the language must have been quite an assignment!   Though we couldn’t understand the words, they and the music were clear; it was an interesting composition.

Another long-standing regular at The Big Sing, St. Patrick’s College’s Con Anima choir, sang Phil Collins’s ‘Trashin’ the Camp’, a song from the 1999 film Tarzan.  It was accompanied by electric bass guitar and piano, and featured a brief vocal solo.  The 30-strong choir’s rendition involved lots of movement; the piece was very popular with the audience and was sung with style, accuracy and splendid vocal tone.

To end the evening were performances from choirs at Samuel Marsden Collegiate in Karori.  The first, Ad Summa, was directed by the student who composed the piece sung by the second choir.  First up was ‘Te Iwi E’, transcribed by student Gabrielle Palado, who, Google tells me, is a champion golfer.  The singing was accompanied by actions in the best traditions of the action song.  A guitar was used to accompany this 90-strong choir.  It was a fine performance.

The other choir, Altissime, was conducted by teacher (and distinguished soprano) Maaike Christie-Beekman.  She gave a demonstration of active, intelligent, involving directing.  The song ‘I am a sailor’ was by student Neakiry Kivi.  It was an impressive composition for a student to have written.  Its music was in places quite difficult.  The composer herself narrated, using a microphone, through part of the song; the last part was in te reo.  The 30 singers had wonderful tone, control and blend.  The dynamics were superb.  Perhaps this was the best item of the night.  I rather think this is the same song, given now an English title rather than its Maori equivalent, with which Kivi won the Royal New Zealand Navy’s 75th anniversary Secondary Schools’ Creative Competition.

Judging was on the basis of the day’s performances as well as those at the evening concert; the same went for the Wednesday sessions and concert – there were awards at the close of that concert too, though the printed programme did not distinguish as it should have between the awards given each night.

There were many certificates presented, but here I list only the cups.  The Victoria University of Wellington College of Education award  for the best performance of a New Zealand composition was awarded to Rathkeale College and St. Matthew’s Collegiate choir Viva Camerata.  The Shona Murray Cup for classical performance went to Wellington College Chorale; the Dorothy Buchanan Cup for ‘other styles of music’ was won by St. Patrick’s Con Anima choir.  The Festival Cup for ‘overall attitude to The Big Sing’ was awarded to Wellington Girls’ College.  Finally, a new financial award from the Ministry of Youth Development, named ‘Spirit of the Festival’ Youth Ambassadors Award, presented   in the form of a framed certificate, went to Heretaunga College.

Every choir member, director, trainer and accompanist deserves congratulations – not ignoring the fact that a number of the choirs sang unaccompanied, with accuracy and consistency, showing excellent musicianship.  Let’s hope that the students will maintain their singing, through youth and community choirs, when they leave school.


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