Excellent performances of UK and US music from Wellington Youth Choir

Wellington Youth Choir conducted by Jared Corbett; Deputy Musical Director: Penelope Hooson; accompanist: Gabriel Khor

Songs from Britain and the United States

Metropolitan Cathedral of the Sacred Heart

Friday 9 June, 7 pm

The Sacred Heart Cathedral is a good place for singing – for both singers and listeners, and so it was especially good to hear this generally well-schooled and enthusiastic young choir, in a wide variety of songs.

The British song tradition
The concert began with an account of God Save the Queen, which prompted no one to stand, because it was clearly an arrangement, and a rather entertaining arrangement of the anthem, by Tahlia Griffis and Will King, two choir members. Each of the later, unfamiliar stanzas took the form of a variation in a musical sense: a nice clean performance, part-singing well balanced, and the last verse especially amusing and harmonically quirky, without becoming conspicuously republican in spirit.

For Gunnar Erikson’s arrangement of Purcell’s charming Music for a While, the choir divided into a group of eight soloists with the words, against humming by the main body of the choir.  There followed other songs by English composers, generally in a folk song vein, by Herbert Howells and perhaps Elgar, and two songs from Britten’s Ceremony of Carols. (I’m not sure whether either the Howells or the Elgar was dropped, as I caught only half of what the conductor said as he introduced the group – nor did assistant conductor Penelope Hooson speak distinctly enough for me to catch all her remarks). Whether Howells’s In Youth is Pleasure or Elgar’s The Snow, it was a delightful performance, lively and luminous.

Penelope Hooson took charge of strong sopranos plus very distinct altos in a lovely rendering of Britten’s ‘Ballulalow’ and the lively ‘This Little Babe’ from his Ceremony of Carols.

There followed familiar folk songs: Bobby Shaftoe, Londonderry Air, and two songs from John Rutter’s arrangements in Five Traditional Songs: ‘O Waly, Waly’ and ‘Dashing away with the Smoothing Iron’. There were ecstatic harmonies and a penny whistle in Bobby Shaftoe, hard to keep in tune; tuning was also a challenge in Danny Boy though that seemed to increase its charm.

Rutter’s setting of ‘O Waly Waly’, employing pure, unison women’s voices to begin, was a fine and successful test of technique and accuracy; the ‘Smoothing Iron’ was a more traditional setting.

Bob Chilcott’s The Making of the Drum, quite extended – maybe 10 minutes? – called on some unusual tricks like rubbing hands together, humming and noisy breathing and later, less unorthodox singing like a four-note motif from women and melancholy part-singing by the men; but the words and the musical sense of the work escaped me, even in passages that were more orthodox. One of those occasions where the innocent listener perhaps tries too hard to find what the composer does not intend to supply or for the audience to worry about.

Songs from the United States
United States songs occupied the second half. More of them were traditional or derived from jazz or Broadway, than in the case of the British songs.

It began with the choir disposed around the side and cross aisles; the singing spread from the front and slowly took hold throughout, so that sections of the choir seemed to come from unexpected quarters as they sang an arrangement of the Appalachian folk  song Bright Morning Star.

Penelope Hooson then directed the spiritual Didn’t my Lord Deliver Daniel and Deep River, both in Moses Hogan’s arrangements. They were well balanced among the sections of the choir, sustaining a uniform tone.

My notes at this stage remarked on what I began to find a bit inauthentic: country or bluesy rhythms turned salon music, which overlies most concertised American folk music. Probably unfair, but my feeling at that moment.

Nyon Nyon by Jake Runestad was new to me; the high-lying words sung by women while men murmured below them, with strange vocalisations, nasal sounds, offered what might be called, perjoratively, noises as distinct from music, which can soon induce weariness rather than delight.

Looking for background on the composer of the next two songs, from Three Nocturnes by Daniel Elder, I found this comment about Ballade to the Moon : “Marked Adagio Misterioso, this evocative work has been appearing on festival lists all over the country, and for good reason – it is an important contribution to the choral repertoire.” (https://www.jwpepper.com/Ballade-to-the-Moon/10283255.item#/).

I’d scribbled remarks like ‘melodic, sentiment – not sentimental, singing moves about the choir interestingly, pretty piano accompaniment’ (and it’s timely to compliment the pianist Gabriel Khor on his lively and supportive playing throughout the concert); and about the second song, Star Sonnet, ‘another slow, inoffensive melody, monotone, basically sentimental  ’.  However, they proved a nice change from the earlier prevalence of over-arranged, Gospel-inspired material.

The rest of the concert included a nice setting of Fats Waller’s Ain’t misbehavin’ and a well-rehearsed if unadventurous account of Gershwin’s I got Rhythm.

There was a rather prolonged series of thanks to sponsors and supporters of the choir before the last two songs; a strange, low-key, hymn-like arrangement of The Star-spangled Banner and a sort of religious flavoured song by Susan LaBarr: Grace before Sleep.

Some reflections
For me, more strongly persuaded of the central importance of Continental Europe in most aspects of broadly western musical culture, the choice of music seemed somehow peripheral. There were virtually no mainstream classical choruses or ensembles or art songs in the programme; the nearest were a few British arrangements of folk songs by important composers. However, the choice of songs within those rather limited genres was eclectic, and the choir’s refinement, control of dynamics, colour, and their flexibility in some off-beat and unorthodox vocal techniques, was often most impressive; and I have to confess that the range of pieces produced an evening of entertaining and well-schooled performances.

I might finally comment on the programme. I see the job of critiquing live music performances as, in part, to create a record of classical music performance in the Greater Wellington region to help future music or other historians to obtain a better picture of activities than is likely to be accessible through the often non-existent archives of a multitude of individual orchestral, choral, chamber music organisations, tertiary institutions and music venues that are of variable accuracy and comprehensiveness.

Basic archival information, time, date and place of the performance(s), was missing. Though it did record the details of all the pieces sung and the names all choir members, musical directors and accompanist.

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