New Zealand Secondary Students Choir in Concert directed by Andrew Withington and Rachel Alexander
Accompanied by Brent Stewart (piano) and percussionists, with Elizabeth Andrew (soprano) and other soloists from the choir
Sacred Heart Cathedral
Saturday, 28 April 2018, 7.30pm
A rather damp, cool evening after days of beautiful, calm weather did not daunt family, friends and supporters of the choir; the church was packed.
The 55-member choir proved to be in great form, and well-trained in a diversity of choral music. Their interpretations were always adapted to the style and age of music being performed. Diverse tone and approach were sensitively observed. I found myself writing down ‘men’ and ‘women’ for items where part of the choir only was singing; it was not easy to think that these were all teenagers still at school, such was their accomplishment.
Singing 19 diverse items in 9 different languages would be a major challenge for any choir; that this choir did it with aplomb after a week’s workshop in Wellington was astonishing. The choir only meets during school vacations, not weekly like most adult choirs. Even more surprising to mere adults is the fact that most items were sung without the musical scores, i.e. from memory.
The programme began with ‘Kanaval’ by Sydney Guillaume of Haiti, and was sung with great vigour and commitment in the Haitian Creole language, accompanied by various percussion instruments, and clapping at times. It was a confident, joyful and effervescent performance, from memory.
The second item was conducted by assistant director and vocal consultant, Rachel Alexander. It was ‘Prelude’ by Norwegian-American composer Ola Gjello, sung in Latin. It featured chanting against long held notes, almost drones, held by other parts of the choir. The piece consisted of ‘Exsultate’ and ‘Alleluia’. Part of the text was sung by the female voices, later rejoined by the men. There were blocs of pentatonic harmony.
The rearranged double choir then sang, with harpsichord, ‘Magnificat’ by Pachelbel; with soloists from the choir. It was notable for the bright vocal sound and was one of the few items for which the choir required the printed scores.
It was followed by the beautiful ‘Lacrimosa’ from Mozart’s Requiem, in yet another formation, accompanied by the fluent piano of Brent Stewart, assistant director and accompanist. A lovely subdued tone issued from the choir; a magnificent fortissimo was produced when required.
David Childs is a New Zealand composer; his ‘Salve Regina’ (in Latin) was sung unaccompanied and from memory. A quite gorgeous, varied and attractive piece this; it had luscious harmonic clusters and a solo. All the singing was very fine. Again, dynamics were varied and beautifully controlled.
An evocative flute made an appearance in ‘Hine Ma Tov’, a Jewish hymn based on Psalm 133 (in Hebrew) by American Neil Ginsberg. Delicious harmonies were present in the piece. As elsewhere, the singers were spot-on together at the opening of the work and at cadences. The male voices were more prominent in this item; the female voices were inclined to be a little strident at times.
‘Stemming’, by Swedish composer Hugo Alfvén (1872-1960) was in the Danish language, another unaccompanied item sung without scores. It was followed by an Austrian folksong for tenors and basses: ‘Buana, geht’s tanzn’ performed with percussion accompaniment. The voices were good and strong, the words clear; it was a polished performance.
The higher voices had their turn, with a song in English: ‘Bring me little water Sylvi’, by African-American Huddie Ledbetter (1888-1949), whose song ‘Goodnight Irene’ was all the rage when I was very young. The rendition involved humming and clapping (“body percussion”). The voices produced a pleasing silky tone.
The last item in the first half of the concert was ‘Unclouded day’, by American Rev. J.K. Alwood, arranged by Shawn Kirchner. This gospel song featured counterpoint, fugue – and blue-grass musical style, making it an interesting item, sung unaccompanied by the full choir.
After the break (needed after the time sitting on those backless forms!) we had two items by the Puanaki whanau of Christchurch: both action songs accompanied by guitars. ‘Pakipaki’ was first, and was most effective, the choir believable as a bunch of Maori warriors. The second, ‘Te Mura o Te Ahi’, (The flame of the fire) was loud and exciting. At first the choir was chanting rather than singing, then their utterances turned to dense harmony. The whole was very rousing.
Still in Te Reo, the choir sang a waiata – the well-known ‘Hine e hine’ by Te Rangi Pai, unaccompanied, in an arrangement by Andrew Withington. It was a most beautiful arrangement – I must say more so than another I heard recently. This one was not pitched too high, so sounded more authentic and more mellow and lyrical. Pronunciation was clear and accurate.
Two compositions by prolific American choral composer Eric Whitacre followed. ‘The Seal Lullaby’ was accompanied by clear, flowing lines on the piano. An enchanting piece, much of it was wordless, with the singers making ‘oo-oo’ sounds. Certainly a soothing lullaby.
Then came ‘Cloudburst’, a much more extended piece. It’s dramatic – but you can’t go away humming it. There are many different vocal sounds, and many kinds of body percussion, plus piano. Those words that are used are Spanish. The sounds of rain, both gentle and stormy, were produced in various ways. One of the most striking is thumb-clicking, which sounds exactly like big drops falling on wet ground. A drum added thunder.
There are swarms of notes, words against humming, and some solo sections. This difficult work was performed confidently and strongly; these singers are at a standard almost unbelievable for secondary school students. This was a virtuoso performance. I have heard the work once before, in Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul, where the ample resonance lost it the precision we had here. The choir had sung this and some of the other items in a concert in Palmerston North in January.
The most appealing piece in the whole programme was ‘Spring Rain’ by contemporary Latvian composer Ëriks Ešenvalds, commissioned last year by the New Zealand Youth Choir and the New Zealand Secondary Schools Choir. It was in English with guitar (Carson Taare) and a fine soprano soloist, Elizabeth Andrew, from Dunedin. However, I did not find that her words were as clear as those of the choir. As throughout the concert, rhythm, timing, intonation, consistent vowels and dynamics were all virtually faultless. Everything was thoroughly musical. This song could cause a tear or two well up by its sheer beauty, as rendered by this choir.
Now for something completely different… a medley of songs from My Fair Lady, sung in harmony with piano. A Cockney accent was used to effect where required, and the songs were sung with relish. I thought ‘I’ve grown accustomed to her face’ was a little too legato for its character. However, the rollicking arrangement by Andy Beck (USA) was a lot of fun.
The concert ended with another item in te reo, this time the well-known old cicada song ‘A Te Tarakihi’ by Ngati Maniopoto and Alfred Hill, arranged by Brent Stewart. With a drum soloist, it was stirring stuff, though I thought, not only because scores were used, that it was not quite as thoroughly rehearsed as other items. Finally a Samoan sequence arranged by Stephen Rapana: ‘Maia soma e/Malie Tagifa’. Clapping and movement preceded the singing, which was conducted by a choir member (presumably Samoan). Drum, action, change from standing to sitting and back to standing were all part of the performance.
Standing too for the audience – a standing ovation for this fabulous choir, who astonished mere adults with their skill, memory, and multi-lingual performance. Bravo! The choir is to travel to Hong Kong in July for an international choral festival and then to Shanghai; fund-raising is under way.