Beautiful contemporary choral music from Cantoris: if only an orchestra!

Cantoris Choir conducted by Thomas Nikora with Mark Dorrell – accompanist and Barbara Paterson – soprano

Chris Artley: O magnum mysterium
Rutter: Magnificat
Lauridsen: Sure on this Shining Night

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Saturday 1 July, 7:30 pm

It was a calm, cool, drizzly night, when most of Wellington’s population was either at the stadium, in pubs or at home watching a rugby match between New Zealand and the combined British-Ireland team. Very few: to wit, about 30, felt free to attend a rather fine concert by one of Wellington’s longest surviving choirs (almost 50 years).

Those happy few had a wide choice of seating.

The concert opened with an a cappella setting of the Medieval Latin, liturgical chant, O magnum mysterium, which has inspired many of the great composers, particularly in the Renaissance.

Chris Artley was born in Leeds, then lived elsewhere in Yorkshire and Lancashire, went to school in Bolton, graduated from Bristol University (1981-84), did teacher training at Cambridge University. Then he worked in London until coming to Auckland ‘13 years ago’ (2004?), as he told Eva Radich on RNZ Concert back in February. In 2010 he took a graduate diploma in music at Auckland University, including conducting with Karen Grylls and composing with John Elmsly. He’s worked with and composed for Terence Maskell’s Graduate Choir, and currently teaches at King’s College, Auckland. O Magnum Mysterium was written for the Nelson Summer School Choir in 2013. (See

Though it’s a short piece, it is based on several short but coherent and ear-catching motifs, and ends with the choir calling sweetly and engagingly, ‘Dominum Christum. Alleluia!’ Artley’s lucid and unpretentious music is a nice contribution to the fast-growing body of new music written to be enjoyed by singers and audiences alike, and Thomas Nikora guided his singers through a sympathetic, well-delivered performance of it.

The main work was Rutter’s Magnificat. Again, a liturgical text that’s been set by everyone from Josquin, John Taverner (and John Tavener), Tallis and Victoria, Monteverdi, Schütz, Vivaldi and Bach, Mozart, Bruckner and Franck to Arvo Pärt and, well… Rutter.

It opens at a fine clip, in triplets and the high voices of the choir generated a joyful clamour. The first of the sequence of mood shifts, to a sort of English pastoral scene, was again dominated by higher voices, which I came to feel was more an observation on the exposure and smaller numbers of tenors and basses. But then came a return to the almost operatic lustiness of the opening, though as this part of the work ended, in spite Mark Dorrell’s excellent handling of the piano, sensitive and colourful, some of its excitement may have been missed in the absence of an orchestra. You only need to look at the scoring that includes harp, four horns and rich percussion: glockenspiel, snare drum, cymbals, tambourine, bongos to see the importance Rutter placed on an orchestra. But what to do, given the poverty of New Zealand’s artistic resources? Funds are needed to meet the costs of an orchestra of the calibre of Orchestra Wellington, for a job on this scale. Wellington has the singers and the professional instrumentalists for a work like this, but how to pay them, as one must, without even a tiny fraction of the public and private funds that are readily found for sport?

Rutter’s insertion of the lovely Middle English poem, Of a rose, a lovely rose, might have seemed a curious aesthetic move, but it’s not too much at odds with the spirit of the religious canticle.

It was good to have the words of ‘Of a Rose,’ in the programme but it would also have been useful for those not so conversant with Catholic liturgy to have had the Magnificat’s text as well, so that the several sections into which the work was divided could be identified confidently. For example, one needed to read the sense of ‘Et misericordia’ as soprano Barbara Paterson sang this section. Initially her voice sounded slightly tremulous, rather than lyrically reverent, but her confidence and accomplishment sustained her performance there and at her reappearance in the ‘Esurientes’ movement where she expressed a humane message in a moving melody: ‘He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away’.

But between the two soprano sections, came the almost ferocious ‘Fecit potentiam’. I couldn’t catch enough words here to make sense of it, though it was jagged in rhythm suggesting some kind of revolutionary action. Again it would have been good to know that it was a plea to overcome that very contemporary political evil of gross economic and political inequality: ‘He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek’.

The final section, Gloria Patri, is a further plea to banish oppression against the powerless that Rutter, actually a non-believer, clearly took rather seriously. ‘succour those in need, help the faint-hearted, console the tearful: pray for the laity … intercede for all devout women’ (mm.. what about all women?); and it was full of ecstatic energy with its fierce dotted rhythms, repeated rising phrases, and crescendo.

The choir and its accompanist had done very well.

The last piece was Morton Lauridsen’s Sure on This Shining Night (setting a poem by American novelist and poet James Agee). Unusual poem, much given to repetition of the title, I can see its attraction to a composer, to whom such techniques are commonplace. Opening with graceful notes on the piano and the slow emergence of first, men’s voices and then women all coming together to develop an indescribably beautiful melody, again exquisitely handled by conductor, pianist and choir. I will draw contempt from certain quarters in saying that, for me, this music and that of the other two composers handled here, surely point the way to a revival of approachable and simply beautiful music that gifted composers have avoided creating over much of the past century.


One thought on “Beautiful contemporary choral music from Cantoris: if only an orchestra!

  1. Cantoris says:

    Thank you for coming to our concert and for a lovely review. It may have been a small audience last Saturday (shaking fists at rugby) but it was a very appreciative one! We definitely agree with you about funding and resources for the arts. However like many other choirs in Wellington (and rest of NZ!) in the same situation, we will continue to do what we love. And that is to sing! We’ll be performing this programme again this Saturday at St James Anglican Church, Lower Hutt, 2pm. And looking forward to a bigger audience!

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