Wellington’s professional chamber choir ends successful second year

Inspirare – a professional choral ensemble directed by Mark Stamper, with Tawa College’s chamber choir, Blue Notes, conducted by Isaac Stone

The Cycle of Life: Music by Kerry Marsh, David Childs, Gwyneth Walker, Daniel Elder, Rautavaara, Ben Parry, Morten Lauridsen, Matthew Harris, Stenhammar, William Finn, Jeffrey Derus, Sandra Milliken, Zachary Moore and Copland

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 5 November, 3 pm

Middle C attended and reviewed the inaugural concert by this professional chamber choir on 4 September 2016, and we reviewed their previous concert on 13 August this year.

Each of those concerts had a theme, and so did this one: The Cycle of Life using two of the immediate seasons: Winter and Spring – symbolising death and life, characterising the nature of those seasons from a North American perspective – probably the north-east where the seasons are very distinct.

Mark Stamper introduced the concert, and at once encountered an unfortunate difficulty: an unresponsive microphone; although he spoke more loudly, I wasn’t able to understand much of what he said, perhaps impaired as I was sitting in the gallery. That mattered as one relies on a certain amount of oral commentary because song lyrics were not provided in the printed programme which, in the circumstances, would have been useful. Otherwise, the stylish programme was evidence of the polished, professional character of the concert.

The concert followed the pattern established earlier, of involving a young choir to sing either on their own or as part of a larger ensemble. This time the associated choir was Tawa College’s Blue Notes, under Isaac Stone (who’s also a member of Inspirare).

The choir set itself a hurdle from the start by choosing the theme of Winter, symbolising Death, which prescribed music likely to be cold, elegiac, melancholy, though it was by no means always despairing in spirit. The second half restored the balance with Spring with its celebration of renewed life.

Blue Notes took its place at the beginning; they opened with an evocative piece, Justin Vernon’s Woods (arranged by Kerry Marsh, who seems to dominate the credits for the performing version). It’s based on a single motif, and starts with one, then two voices before additional vocal lines build to a dense ensemble engaging in the entire choir. A nice piece for a versatile college choir that could tap their likely predisposition for popular, genuine, thoughtfully sentimental music. It was a splendid demonstration of the choir’s talents, their dynamic control and engaging tonal synthesis.

Next was Peace, my Heart, by New Zealand composer, David Childs, now a prominent figure in the United States choral music scene. Blue Notes won a Silver Award at the 2017 Big Sing choral festival with Peace, my Heart. Calm, meditative, consoling, it called for a cello obbligato which, hinting momentarily at the Bach cello suites, was sympathetically played by choir member and all-round musician Benny Sneyd-Utting.

The college choir then retreated and the women of the adult choir took over (I failed to notice whether the girls from Blue Notes had remained to support the choral element, but on reflection, realised they must have), beginning with Gwyneth Walker’s In Autumn (a departure from the general theme of the concert). Though the poem was read by the conductor, it was not really a substitute for being able to read the words: songs are only partly the music, and it deprives the listener of an appreciation of the way the music reflects the sense of the poem. However, this first offering by Inspirare itself spoke emphatically of a choir comprising fine voices that had been scrupulously rehearsed. It opened with two soloists from the choir, soprano Inese Berzina and mezzo Linden Loader, from which the course of the song gradually intensified. Fiona McCabe’s rippling piano accompaniment lent it an unusual quality, supporting high lines created by the women.

The toughest work in the programme followed: Finnish composer Rautavaara’s Suite de Lorca, settings of four poems from various parts of Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca’s oeuvre. Mostly stark, bleak pieces that seem to presage the poet’s grisly death at the hands of Franco’s fascists. Capturing their character convincingly, in Spanish, (and it was particularly good to have the translated words on an insert) they began with the galloping ‘Canción del jinete’, addressing Cordoba, the destination that he will not reach (Lorca was actually killed near Granada). ‘El grito’ (the scream) perhaps a gloss on Munch’s famous painting, its fearfulness was followed, strangely, in the same key, by ‘La luna asoma’ (The Moon Rises), at once bright and chilling, punctuated by Pasquale Orchard’s mezzo voice rising high over it. There was no hint in the uneasy ‘Malagueña’, of a more familiar evocation of the Malaga to be found in Albeniz or Granados. (‘Death comes and goes from the tavern’). The choir’s fine command of the emotionally powerful poems and their unflinching settings was outstanding.

Ben Parry’s The Ground lies hard again reflected a bleak though changeable picture of a winter landscape. And Winter was finally summed up in a set of unforgivingly gritty Mid-winter Songs by Morton Lauridsen. Here, in particular, I felt the need of the words to make better sense of the music, for my earlier experience of Lauridsens’s compositions hardly prepared me for these five sharply contrasted, harmonically tortured songs. The skilful handling of their evidently challenging lines spoke again of an impressive level of vocal talent as well as polished ensemble and blending of voices.

The scene brightened with Spring, as Blue Notes opened the second half with Matthew Harris’s setting of It was a Lover and his Lass; clear and bright, breaking its uniformity with a startling modulation in the middle. Another Scandinavian gesture came with Stenhammar’s September, evidently sung in Swedish, here was a song that reminded one of its descent from the more familiar path of classical song from Schubert through Grieg and Wolf…

Benny Sneyd-Utting took to the piano to accompany I Feel so much Spring from a music theatre piece, A New Brain by William Finn. Though in a distinctly Broadway idiom, it was comprehensible in emotional terms, both verbally and musically, and was presented in a comfortable, idiomatic manner. This was the last song in which Blue Notes sang by themselves.

There were two songs by Jeffrey Derus. Afternoon on a Hill was listed as a premiere, but I came across it in a YouTube clip – to a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay whose name was familiar from my student years. A harmonically dense, complex song, it nevertheless communicated a joy in open spaces, offering a fine demonstration of the choir’s versatility, tonal and dynamic flexibility.

The concert was dedicated to the memory of Evelyn Tuuta. She was one of the first people Stamper met in Wellington, and she gave him the words and tune, ‘Hutia te rito’. It was to become the basis for Stamper’s desire to bring the music of America and the Maori people together, with a special commission, a project that he discussed with American composer Zachary Moore.

Inspirare’s website records Stamper’s account of the piece’s origin:
For our Inaugural concert, we wanted to bring together the previous world of the conductor (America) with his new world in New Zealand. What better way to do that, than to have an American composer arrange a Maori tune and text for Inspirare. Zachary J, Moore was commissioned to use this tune, with the permission of Evelyn Tuuta’s iwi and the blessing of the Maori Language Commission of New Zealand. He utilised this tune, wrote a new one as well and then juxtaposed them into a wonderful setting for SATB, piano and percussion. The piece features several soloists, along with the rich harmonies of the ensemble. Hutia te rito has been published and is available for sale.

The welding together of the Maori element and these words helped shape Inspirare’s first concert, in 2016.

The title refers to the growing stem of harakeke (New Zealand flax), and a website gives the translation:

“Pull out the shoot,
Pull out the shoot of the flax bush
Where will the bellbird sing?
Say to me
What is the greatest thing?
What is the greatest thing in this world?
I will say
The people! The people! The people!”

As well as the choir, two solo voices contributed: Megan Corby and Isaac Stone; and Jacob Randall, James Fuller and Nathan Carter performed on drum, maracas and cymbal.

The result, the combination of music that was characteristic of both the Maori and American spirit lent the piece a particularly strong individuality: not setting out to demonstrate compositional sophistication or to formulate a complex philosophical statement, but to express a fundamental human truism, from which an elementary emotional quality emerged.

Derus’s other song, If I could give, was another commission by Inspirare whose website records remarks by the composer:
‘If I Could Give’ offers a simple message: “To live life to fullest, conquer yours dreams, and hold each treasured moment close”. Collaborating with my dear friend and poet, Courtney Prather, we created a work that is infused with adventure and the exploration of dreams. Mark Stamper, artistic director of Inspirare, and I chose to incorporate piano and cello with the remarkable sound of Inspirare to develop a piece that will end the concert. My musical concept was inspired by the idea of taking snapshots of a persons life by giving a distinctive motive for each stanza of text. I am honoured to collaborate with Mark and Courtney on “If I Could Give” and eagerly await its world premiere in November 2017.

The cellist was again Benny Sneyd-Utting, with Fiona McCabe’s piano accompaniment. A reflective tone, unpretentious and involving, gave the song an immediacy, in which a depth of emotion was an artless product of all the varied vocal colours and dynamics that the choir commands.

But it wasn’t the final piece. That was ‘The Promise of Living’ which ends Act I of Copland’s opera The Tender Land.  Though it was slow to make much of an impression after its 1950s premiere, its modest musical strengths have steadily taken root, particularly around the time of the Copland centenary in 2000.

The accompaniment was from the piano duet of Fiona McCabe and Rachel Thomson; Blue Notes choir returned and took their places intermingling with their older colleagues. Male voices here were particularly impressive and the duets, the larger ensembles and even individual voices translated very successfully for a relatively small choir though naturally, it hardly rendered the interaction between individuals who sing in the original score. The traditional end-of-act-one finale built steadily to, perhaps not a Rossini climax but a very satisfying end that is likely to have encouraged audience members to explore the opera.

Apart from the emergence of an enterprising professional choir in the city, Mark Stamper’s efforts also bring to our attention several unfamiliar (to me at least) United States composers, and the existence of a strong choral tradition that is producing a great deal of surprisingly challenging, but also approachable, attractive music in his country.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *