Liturgical music, dramatic and meditative in splendid Orpheus Choir concert

Orpheus Choir and the Orchestra of the New Zealand School of Music, conducted by Brent Stewart and Kenneth Young
Jenny Wollerman (soprano) and James Clayton (baritone)

Giovanni Gabrieli: Canzon Duo Decimi a 10 (#3)
Duruflé: Requiem
Leonie Holmes: Frond
Dvořák: Te Deum

Wellington Cathedral of Saint Paul

Saturday 26 May, 7:30 pm

The Orpheus Choir made a striking decision to perform two great choral works that are not often heard – one that is well-enough known but not so often heard (the Duruflé) and Dvořák’s Te Deum which I had not heard before. It’s one of those pieces that you are sure you’ve heard at some time, but turns out to be quite unfamiliar.

Gabrieli and Dvořák
However, the concert began with something else that was not revealed in the programme booklet: it was a surprise, simply to see the dozen brass virtuosi from the NZSM orchestra file on. We were in for something special: Giovanni Gabrieli’s Canzon Duo Decimi a 10 (#3) from the book of Symphoniae Sacrae of 1597. They set the aural scene brilliantly.

Two conductors were involved. Kenneth Young conducted the Gabrieli, the piece by Leonie Holmes and the Duruflé, while the choir’s conductor, Brent Stewart conducted the Dvořák.

The choral part began with the Dvořák. It struck me at once as a pretty unconventional liturgical work, far more histrionic and secular in feel than most music of the genre. Things like the last movement of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony, or perhaps the operatic character of Verdi’s Requiem offer some idea of its nature. The timpani opening was stunning, might I even say spectacular and it was obvious that accompaniment by a full orchestra was indispensable; I listened to the university orchestra with real admiration from the very start.

Jenny Wollerman’s voice was an obvious choice among Wellington sopranos: large, clear and attractive, able to cut through orchestral sounds, though it was interesting that the orchestral writing was generally considerate of the soprano’s performance. Was it an alto flute that emerged in the middle of the first part? The flamboyant character of the music came to a great climax at the end of the first chorus and the baritone part takes over without a pause, with fresh brass fanfares.

James Clayton’s voice and presentation was every bit as vivid and appropriate as Wollerman’s had been and he managed to maintain the operatic-cum-oratorio character of the music. I kept reflecting that it was remarkable that Dvořák, in spite of the confusion about the text he was to set for the Columbus 400th anniversary immediately on his arrival in New York, had judged the sort of music that would be fit for the occasion, as he wrote it while still at home in Bohemia.

Some writings about the Te Deum seem to suggest that it was tossed off as an obligation, a last minute substitution for a text that didn’t arrive in time.  It was melodically and rhythmically strong, with plenty of excitement, for though an American school of composition hadn’t emerged (and that was part of the reason for Dvořák‘s invitation), there was plenty of evidence of a taste for the big-boned, noisy, extravert music on a huge scale (read about the reception of Johann Strauss II in Boston in 1872).

A fresh surprise strikes at the start of the third movement which is entirely sung by the chorus, and another flamboyant triple time rhythm takes over, though it soon quietens with the more prayerful words, ‘Et laudamus nomen tuum in saeculum, et in saeculum saeculi’.

If one sometimes wonders how much close attention the composer pays to the meaning of the hymn, one example struck me, the words sung by the choir: ‘Miserere nostri, Domine, miserere nostri’ in the fourth part, as the soprano continues to be closely and impressively integrated in the increasingly frantic, exciting music that Dvořák delivers repeating ‘Alleluia’ numerous times. The work proves to be a singular combination of the expostulatory and triumphant punctuated here and there by some affecting contemplative passages.

Leonie Holmes
The first half ended with a piece written in 2004 by Leonie Holmes: Frond (which turned out to be, not a depiction of the mid-17th century uprising against Louis XIV, in France – La Fronde – but a portrayal of fern fronds). It failed to evoke any forest or botanical imagery for me, but I still found it an attractive piece which helped restore my belief in the value of contemporary music, after exposure the previous evening to some of the Stroma/Bianca Andrew/Alex Ross concert, some about a century old – long enough to have taken root in the affections of a tolerant listener had they been inspired by real ‘musical’ impulses. Holmes’s composition was evocative and her imaginative use of the orchestra and the musical motifs she employed made it a cleansing and spiritually restorative piece.

The continuation of that musical spirit came with the lovely Requiem of Duruflé. In my own record of Duruflé performances I had to go back to 2014 to find the last hearing in Wellington: from Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir under Karen Grylls, when it was coupled, as it so often is, with the Fauré.

If the Fauré and Duruflé requiems are congenial companions, the Dvořák had offered no clue as to its companion’s character, and it created a vividly different musical experience. The pace of its opening phase was of peace and consolation, though not conspicuously religiose (Go on! Look it up!).

It’s a work that is often accompanied by organ, and while that is a legitimate version, and though I enjoy organ music I am almost always more delighted with orchestral colour and variety where that’s what the composer wanted. In the opening phase cellos and basses and soon the uneasy brass and heavy timpani made me grateful that the choir had managed a deal with the NZSM Orchestra. And it made me wonder whether ways could be found to engage the orchestra for other major choral performances that find the cost of professional players out of reach but which would benefit hugely from the lively, excellent playing we heard from the university orchestra.

The striking feature of the singing was its subtlety and its subdued vitality, in something of a contrast to the Dvořák. The opening Introit set the tone and was in complete contrast: calm, tranquil, reverent, but the Kyrie involved a more clamorous plea for mercy in a short central section. Soloists do not get exposure here and we waited through several minutes of the Domine Jesu Christe, through a quiet organ passage and a plangeant soprano part that builds to a tutti outburst before baritone James Clayton enters with ‘Hostias et preces’, amid tremolo strings and a much more disturbing atmosphere. It doesn’t last long and the soprano-led plea for God’s restoration settles the atmosphere.

A comparable atmosphere of exultation builds slowly in the Sanctus, opening with rippling accompaniment on (I think) organ flute stops. The words ‘Hosanna in excelsis’ start quietly but are repeated, crescendo till they climax with massive timpani, and fades into near silence.

Soprano Jenny Wollerman emerged for her first and only solo passage in the Pie Jesu, again with open, confident, adagio lines, gradually rising and falling dynamically. Women’s voices led the way in the following Agnus dei, appropriately slow-paced and pleading, the words uttered with extraordinary slowness. Bassoons have some rewarding passages, e.g almost surrounding the voices in the Lux eternum as they dwell long on the same note.

Trumpets open In Libera me, and Clayton filled the air with foreboding at ‘Tremens factus sum ego…’ with only passing reference to the day of wrath, ‘Dies illa, dies irae’, a fine chance to hear the baritone’s rich and powerful expression. Duruflé picks up Fauré’s precedent with his final In paradisum; based on Gregorian chant, it might not have the popular appeal of the latter, but it captures a sustained kind of rapture, and invests the work with an innocent, guileless conclusion that passes over any expectation of doctrinaire belief.

It was a most interesting and satisfying concert of two very beautiful but different works that those who think they are allergic to choral music should be exposed to. Happily, the cathedral was very nearly full, and applause was prolonged.

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