Anthems, spirituals and songs
New Zealand Youth Choir, conducted by David Squire and Michael Stewart; soloists and narrators from the choir
Sacred Heart Cathedral
Sunday, 10 September 2017, 4pm
The cover of the programme appeared to be the poster advertising the choir, but I did not see it anywhere earlier as a poster, and a friend in the audience to whom I spoke after the concert had not seen any publicity either. Both of us found few people we knew in the audience, which also pointed to a lack of publicity.
The Youth Choir comprises 50 voices. A delightful feature of the concert was that members of the choir read, prior to each song, the text of the poems, or other texts relevant to the message of the song. This helped the audience to follow the songs, since neither the words nor any explanatory notes were printed. There appeared to be a microphone where the speakers stood, but if it was such (and not solely for broadcast purposes), it was not switched on. However, most of the speakers spoke sufficiently loudly and clearly for the majority of the words to be heard. Likewise with the singing, the words were projected with clarity, on the whole.
Blend, balance and intonation were virtually impeccable throughout the programme, and attention to dynamics was salutary.
The first item was ‘Flame’ by Englishman Ben Parry, who is director of the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain, and has visited New Zealand. The choir was spread around the four walls to sing this demanding piece, unaccompanied – as were all except for one item on the programme. The music included clashing semi-tones, all perfectly in tune. Gradually the piece built up to a rich, multi-strand tapestry; the fortissimo filled the church with sound. When it ended, the choristers moved to the front of the church, intoning a chant.
Next was an old favourite of the choir, right from its early days: ‘Kyrie’ and ‘Heilig’ by Mendelssohn. The rich tone produced by the choir made it sound a more mature choir (in years) than it is. Incidentally, I found it curious that a timeline of the choir printed in the programme did not mention Guy Jansen (the choir’s founder, and first conductor, who was present) nor Professor Godfrey, who conducted it for a number of years.
Deputy Music Director of the choir, Michael Stewart, conducted ‘Aurora Lucis rutilat’ by Orlande de Lassus (or Orlando di Lassus if you prefer). This was more restrained in tone than the previous pieces. The various parts were eminently clear and the antiphonal singing was most effective. It was useful to have the Latin words translated in the spoken introduction.
Chris Artley’s ‘Agnus Dei’ was the 3rd prize winner in the inaugural International
Choral Composition Competition Japan 2015, and it was the choir’s next item. The composer, English-born but long-time New Zealand resident, set the words from the Mass. It was striking both melodically and harmonically, and the composer had set the words beautifully. It was gorgeously sung, following the opening, which was spoken in Emglish.
Bruckner has featured quite frequently in the choir’s repertoire over the years. ‘Christus factus est’ was preceded by the appropriate reading of two verses in English from the Biblical letter to the Philippians. Rich harmonies, typical of Bruckner’s choral music were a feature, including sustained chords. Impressive.
For a change of mood and territory, we heard ‘How to survive Vesuvius’ by Matthew Recio, a young American composer. The brief preparatory reading about the piece was a little too quiet for me to hear. The piece involved a variety of vocal effects, including many plosives and interesting harmonic shifts. The piece rendered the atmosphere of a disaster very well.
After the interval, the pieces were all in the English language. First was ‘Through coiled stillness’ by New Zealand composer Leonie Holmes. It started with a spoken poem, in Maori and English. Sounds of the sea were most impressively produced by members of the choir and a woman soloist sang strikingly along with the choir for much of the piece. Towards the end there were chimes – bells? Small Asian cymbals?
English composer Gustav Holst’s arrangement of the folk song ‘I love my love’ was prefaced by several members of the choir speaking as inmates of the infamous Bedlam, making a chilling introduction to the song. Its spirited ending made an upbeat conclusion in contrast to the depressing opening. Another Englishman followed: Pearsall, whose ‘Great God of Love’ featured his typical harmony, with many gorgeous suspensions.
Thence to the United States, with two spiritual arrangements by William Dawson: ‘Soon ah will be done’ and another old favourite of the choir, ‘There is a balm in Gilead’. The first was particularly notable for the beautifully controlled dynamics falling from fortissimo to pianissimo. The introduction to the latter was not the poem of the song, but a contemporary description of the cruel treatment of slaves. The performance featured three excellent soloists from the choir.
The only work accompanied by piano (Michael Stewart) was ‘Those Others’, by Rosa Elliott from Burnside High School in Christchurch, who was the winner of SOUNZ Composition Competition in 2015. It was a very fine piece with an enchanting accompaniment, and soloists.
The concert ended with Cole Porter’s ‘Ev’ry time we say goodbye’, a close harmony number, sung with appropriate style and pronunciation.
The concert was not long – about an hour and ten minutes, if the interval is not included. While the choir sang extremely well, I felt a lack of something substantial; all the pieces were short, with little relationship between them, although they amply showed off the different styles and techniques the choir has mastered. Perhaps the organisers were aware of the discomfort of sitting for long on the forms that pass for pews at Sacred Heart?