Nota Bene at Sacred Heart Cathedral: an enjoyable concert by a very accomplished choir

Nota Bene, directed by Shawn Condon

Love’s illusions: Songs of Romance, Passion, Vanity and Loss

Sacred Heart Cathedral

Sunday, 22 April 2018, 3.00pm

An imaginative concert full of delightful songs beautifully sung, it attracted  a moderate audience.  The diversity and careful planning of the programme was let down, in my view, by being broken up by too much applause.  Since it was divided into five Parts, it would have been sensible to have asked the audience to keep applause to the end of each Part.  As it was, almost every song was applauded.  The conductor spoke to the audience at the beginning, but his utterance was too fast and too quiet to be heard in the rear section of this quite large church.

The first Part was entitled ‘Innocence’.  It began with ‘Aftonen’ by Swedish composer Hugo Alfvén (1872-1960).  In the case of this and all other songs not in English, a translation of the text was given in the printed programme, as were composers’ and poets’ names and dates, plus brief but excellent programme notes. The 20-strong choir sang this gentle evening song unaccompanied (as was most of the programme) with splendidly pure tone.  The serene landscape was depicted most effectively.  Close harmony and humming were notable features beautifully executed.

Next up were songs by Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924).  Conjecture is perhaps pointless, but mine is that if Elgar (whose dates are close to those of Stanford) had not come along when he did, we would esteem Stanford much more highly.  Although well-known for his music for the Anglican Church, Stanford wrote much secular music too.

Three songs from his set of Six Elizabethan Pastorals were performed.  They were in almost a folksong idiom.  Notable was the clear English pronunciation of the words by the choir, here and throughout the concert, aided by the generous acoustic of the high-ceilinged church.  This despite the floor being totally carpeted.  The bright idiom of these songs brought a transformation from the quiet, calm, meditative Alfvén piece.  The second song (no.3 in the set), ‘Diaphenia’ contained lively, interesting melody.  ‘Farewell my joy’ was another Stanford song.  I found the music served the words by Mary Coleridge supremely well.

Part II was entitled ‘Devotion’, and opened with ‘Amor de mi Alma’ by Spanish sixteenth-century poet Garcilaso de la Vega, set by a composer unknown to me, Z. Randall Stroope, a contemporary American.  There were tricky minor key intervals and harmonies to be negotiated (successfully) in this quite complex writing.  The closing lines were particularly lovely, setting the words translated as “ Were it necessary for you I would die, and for you I die.”

We moved to more familiar territory (words-wise) with Philip Sidney’s ‘My true love has my heart’, set by Eugene Butler, another contemporary American composer.  It was accompanied on the piano by Shawn Condon, and sung by the women of the choir; it was a delight.  It was followed by Gerald Finzi’s beautiful setting of Robert Bridges’ ‘ My spirit sang all day’ – which I consequently had on the brain for the rest of the day.  The composer’s great interest in literature as well as music equipped him to set the words so well.

‘Go lovely rose’ followed; a setting by Chris Moore, another contemporary American, was for men only, and was unaccompanied, like the Butler song.  The last item in this Part was ‘A boy and a girl’ by renowned American choral composer Eric Whitacre.  The full choir sang this piece, featuring much close harmony.  Quite long, it seemed to me somewhat ponderous at times.

Sustained humming was gorgeous.

Part III bore the heading ‘Vanity’, and began with that other doyen of American choral music, Morten Lauridsen – settings of Les Chansons des Roses, and Dirait-on, poems by Rilke.  (I empathised with the words of the first, translated as ‘Against whom, rose, have you assumed these thorns?’, since a few days earlier a rose thorn had pricked my right thumb, causing it to swell and go black right from the base to the upper knuckle.)

Again, pronunciation was excellent.  Lauridsen has favourite intervals in my experience, and here they were, in this admirable song.  The second song (accompanied) I have heard before; it was a very fine setting.

After the interval, a smaller group sang two songs by Parry.  The composer died in 1918, thus his music being programmed by Tudor Consort recently, and by this choir.  They were the opening item in Parrt IV, ‘Affection’.  The blend in this smaller group of voices was not always satisfactory.  The second song, ‘If I had but two little wings’ fared better – it was more cohesive.  Both were attractive items.

Next was Sibelius.  Shades of Mendelssohn hovered round a song fn German for the full choir.  It had variety and composer and singers made good use of the words.  We remained in Finland with a traditional melody from the Swedish-speaking island of Åland with modern words – and vocal effects, all well executed.

Another Finnish song initiated Part V ‘Mystery and Tenderness’ ; ‘A mermaid’s song’ by Juha Holma.  I think, from reading the biography of the conductor printed in the programme, that Holma is a personal acquaintance of the conductor, who is completing a PhD at a Finnish university.  The piece used vocal effects, including whispering.  While well performed, the song did not appeal to me.  Whitacre’s ‘The Seal Lullaby’, with piano accompaniment, was a pleasing song with a rocking rhythm, particularly in the piano part..

A concession to New Zealand came in David Hamilton’s arrangement of ‘Hine e hine’.  The melody was at a very high pitch– surely many notes higher than the original, and for me the arrangement spoiled the beautiful simplicity of the song, though the parts weaving below the high melody were interestingly written.  The singing sounded strained at times.

Lastly, Part VI – Longing.  First up was a song by a Japanese composer of note: Toru Takemitsu, entitled ‘Shima e’ (To the Island).

Personally, I don’t enjoy the custom of some choirs of singing ‘pops’ at the end of a programme.  I want to go away with something uplifting and beautiful in my head.  ‘Ev’ry time we say goodbye’ by Cole Porter and ‘Both sides now’ by Joni Mitchell are first-rate songs of their genre and were  impeccably sung, the latter by only six voices with piano, but…  Again I felt the simplicity of the second song had been lost by too-clever changes of key.  Daisy Venables was the more than adequate soprano soloist.

Finally, an appropriate song for Wellington: ‘Winds’ by Mia Makaroff, another contemporary Finnish composer; much of her writing (she composed both words and music) is in English.  This was a fine piece of choral writing.  Like the rest of the programme, it was very well sung.

Shawn Condon directed clearly and undemonstratively.  The choir appeared to sing just as well in the items he accompanied on the piano.  An American now working in Wellington, he is about to take over as Artistic Director of the Bach Choir of Wellington.  The choir’s skill in singing in so many different languages was admirable, as was the variety of tone colour and dynamics.

As usual at a Sacred Heart concert, I heard complaints about the uncomfortable forms that are the seating.  Yes, cushions have made a difference, but the design (if one can use that word in such a case) of the seating makes them very hard on the back.  Pews they are not.  Another reason for not applauding between every song – it makes the concert unnecessarily long.

Nevertheless, this was an enjoyable concert by a very accomplished band of singers.


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