Outstanding concert for peace, of Renaissance music, plus Arvo Pärt, plus momentous New Zealand work

The Tudor Consort, conducted by Michael Stewart, with Fiona McCabe and Catherine Norton (piano duet in Pacifc), Tom Chatterton (organ, The Beatitudes)

‘Dona nobis pacem’
Gesualdo: Da pacem Domine (‘Grant peace, Lord, in our time’)
Palestrina: Agnus Dei (from Missa Papae Marcelli)
Josquin des Prez: Agnus Dei (from Missa L’homme arme super voces musicales)
Byrd: Agnus Dei (from Mass for four voices)
Pärt: The Beatitudes
Da pacem Domine
Gemma Peacocke: Pacific 

Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul

Saturday, 16 September 2017, 7.30pm

A substantial audience heard a most innovative and rewarding concert from the ever-reliable Tudor Consort.  An unusually large dose of contemporary music was adorned with Renaissance music, in a concert marking International Day of Peace (21 September).

It began with a setting by Italian Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613) of ‘Da pacem Domine’.  As Michael Stewart said in his pre-concert talk, this composer was ahead of his time; his writing for choirs had more in common with those who came a little later.  This was a very appealing composition.  The interweaving parts and delicious clashes were points of interest in the smooth, but not lifeless, singing.  Beautiful cadences were a feature.

The three settings of the Agnus Dei (final words: ‘grant us peace’) were quite contrasted.  That by Palestrina (c.1525-1594) was sung so well it had an other-worldly feel.  One felt transported to 16th century Rome.  The choir used the acoustics of the cathedral splendidly; the parts were distinctive, well-balanced and uniform in tone.

The Josquin (c.1440/1450-1521) offering was of a different character.  It had not the brilliance of the Palestrina, partly because there were no sopranos in this Agnus Dei; men and altos only.  It was a long and complex piece of musical architecture, and more severe in nature than its predecessor.  Blend and balance between parts was superb; every voice was in fine form.  The weaving in and out of the parts was like the stone vaulting in a medieval or Renaissance cathedral or chapel.

Byrd (c.1539-1623) brought another character again, with his much shorter Agnus Dei.  The return of the sopranos brought a brighter sound.  It was interesting to note the different pronunciation (with an ‘s’ sound in ‘pacem’) in this English work.  The effect of the piece was somewhat plaintive, but quite beautiful.

The first half concluded with Arvo Pärt’s The Beatitudes.  Both this and the composer’s ‘Da pacem Domine’ sung after the interval surprised me.  I am not a great fan of his minimalist compositions, such as Fratres.  However, these two choral works were full of variety and interest.  The Estonian composer (born 1935) wrote The Beatitudes in 1990, and the shorter piece in 2004.

The Beatitudes, an English language composition, was performed with the choir split in two.  It was full of contrast, and contrasted with earlier items by being harmonic rather than contrapuntal.  There were lovely harmonic clashes, and very varied treatment of the words, which for the most part could be heard clearly.  The underpinning from the organ was effective.  Towards the end, the singing got louder; there was a little stridency from the basses here – the only flaw I detected in the whole evening’s singing.  At the jubilant ‘Amen’, the organ embarked on a solo, reiterating the harmony of the choir’s utterances; a very satisfying episode.

The ‘Da pacem Domine’ was complex: parts entering and re-entering at different points, the words thus somewhat disconnected, and appearing like little explosions, giving an echo effect, with very varying dynamics.  There was rich harmony, and a smooth, quiet ending.

After this second Pärt offering came the principal work of the concert.  In the pre-concert talk, Michael Stewart had interviewed the composer, Gemma Peacocke, a New Zealander based in the US, where she is undertaking a PhD at Princeton University.  It was interesting to hear about her inspirations, compositions and use of electronics, as in tonight’s work.

The name Pacific connotes both peace and New Zealand’s geographic position.  The three parts of this new commission from Gemma Peacocke used words from New Zealanders who believed in and promoted peace.  The first were from a speech by Te Whiti o Rongomai in 1880.  The music began with the electronic tape playing a gong sounding, followed by other sounds, and the pianists playing.  The choir began by intoning the words of the speech.  The choir part was very strong and telling, though often treated as musical sounds, not delivered always in whole phrases and sentences (having this feature in common with the preceding Pärt piece).

The tapping brass sounds continued, along with other harder-to-identify noises.  It was quite an elaborate construction, but very musical.

The second part quoted from Archibald Baxter’s book We will not Cease (shown as published by Cape Catley in 2014, but I was given a copy in the 1970s; it was first published in London in 1939, then in New Zealand in 1968 and 1980s).  The choir commenced with vocal sounds (not words); the voices were echoed by electronic sounds.  This was not declamatory in the manner of the Te Whiti episode; it was more sombre and mournful, an effect heightened by a fine soprano solo.  There were more vocal effects, which were brilliantly executed; in fact the whole was a tour de force.

The third part was named ‘David’, being based on excerpts from David Lange’s famous speech at the Oxford Union debate in March 1985 on the proposition ‘That all nuclear weapons are morally indefensible’.  These excerpts were played on tape, along with sound effects that fitted with the theme.  The words were not always readily deciphered, either from the speech or the choir, but they were printed in the programme – as were the words, plus translations where necessary, for all the items in the concert.

Much of the choral writing, along with the piano duet, was almost contrapuntal.  After the last part of the speech there were long choral chords.  The piano part was very busy, but as background rather than foreground.

The mood throughout the whole work was similar: solemn, and though promoting peace was much focused on the existence and characteristics of war.  It was very imaginative musically, with plenty of variety.  It made a considerable impression as a well-crafted and substantial composition.  It was not unduly long; the concert was over before 9pm.

The concert was an outstanding performance from all concerned; it was gratifying to learn that it is to be broadcast by RNZ Concert.  Congratulations to Michael Stewart, choir, pianists and organist – and to Gemma Peacocke.

If I have one criticism of the concert, it is that it would have been useful and informative to print in the programme the dates of each composer’s life, and also to give the dates (where known) of the compositions performed.


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