Admirable exploration of challenging Purcell and gorgeous Fauré from Nota Bene

Nota Bene, the Chiesa Ensemble and Tom Chatterton (organ), directed by Peter Walls

Fauré: Requiem
Puccini: Requiem
Purcell: ‘O sing unto the Lord’; Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary; ‘Rejoice in the Lord Alway’

Sacred Heart Cathedral

Sunday 8 July, 3 pm

Looking back through Middle C’s archive, I was a little surprised to discover that Nota Bene was founded as far back as 2004; we have reviewed 18 of their concerts since our beginning in 2008. It was founded by Christine Argyle, and has been under the direction of several others since, including, quite often, Peter Walls.

Concerts are usually constructed round a theme, and the theme here was death and the celebration of death. Such a theme lends itself to a huge variety of approaches and differences of style dictated by history. The juxtaposition of funeral music by Purcell and that of Puccini and Fauré might have seemed eccentric; but that merely means that the rewards for finding and thinking up connections between disparate things are so much more intriguing. It might encourage making judgements too, and I think the second half, largely dominated by the Fauré Requiem, was the more successful.

It is hard to say whether one should be more admiring of performances of music that are delivered with ease, where all the circumstances come together happily, than of music that is intrinsically challenging, the idiom and style harder to come to terms with; is being tackled by voices few of which are professional, and perhaps in a space, the Catholic basilica, in which every little flaw, lack of balance and ensemble weakness can be heard.

It is hard to say whether one should be more admiring of performances of music that are delivered with ease, where all the circumstances come together happily, than of music that is intrinsically challenging, the idiom, technical demands and style harder to come to terms with.

Purcell: O Sing unto the Lord 
The latter environment affected the three anthems by Purcell. O Sing unto the Lord is described as a “relatively late work” – 1688: he was an elderly 29 years old! And it’s one of his literally hundreds of choral works; making Purcell’s achievement more comparable to Schubert’s or Mozart’s, also dead by age 35, than to any other composer.

Its elaborate orchestral introduction was most impressive, not perhaps as an exercise in authentic Baroque musical performance, but certainly for its beautiful warmth and period feeling, and sheer opulence, placing him clearly in a position equal to the finest Continental composers of his time.

I had intended to get to the pre-concert talk but a family matters intervened. My own reading of the usual sources (e.g. notes to a Hyperion recording) indicate that the prominent bass voice and the scoring for a large string orchestra suggest a special occasion. The same source remarks that “Although the writing is overtly celebratory, behind it is the deliciously wistful quality”, and this indeed was the character of the performance.

After a long and fairly elaborate orchestral prelude, the imposing, solo bass episode, sung by Daniel O’Connor, unusually rotund and well projected, was a striking start to the anthem proper. Then the body of the choir entered with ‘Alleluia’, in contrasting triple time. After another orchestral section, the choir created markedly distinct contrapuntal lines in their singing of the rest of the first verse. It is clearly hard to capture properly, in spite of the triplet rhythm one might have expected to carry it confidently along. A charming duet between soprano and alto, ‘The Lord is great’, created another atmosphere in this constantly varying music. And a more subdued choral dialogue followed in the next verse, ‘O worship the Lord’. The formal variety continued with alternating phrases between O’Connor and the body of the choir in the final section.

I’m sure that it’s easier to achieve a smooth, well integrated performance from a larger choir; and one might have wished that performance by a small choir, probably more like what was available to Purcell, would produce more refinement and sensitive shading of articulation and harmonies; a big challenge that wasn’t quite met.

This rather overlong consideration has found its way into my description mainly on account of the remarkable fecundity and inventiveness of Purcell’s work. Nor did the following anthems present fewer hurdles or complexities to unravel.

Funeral Sentences for Queen Mary
Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary of 1695 (less than a year before his own funeral) was of course less ‘celebratory’; here again the challenges of this sophisticated music were audible, but the choir, sounding thin, faced with the task of creating a regal lament of high seriousness, really struggled.

My memory of first hearing this piece was at a concert maybe 20 years ago by a Victoria University choir, probably conducted by the then Professor Peter Walls in the Adam Concert Room, which impressed me, imprinting it in the memory; there, I may have been moved, uncritically, having no earlier performance to compare. Here I couldn’t help feeling the absence of a richer, more opulent ensemble, and that a rather larger choir was needed, or at least one that had been able to achieve more perfect ensemble through persistence and devotion, more rehearsal than an amateur choir can be expected to get. Perhaps it would have been better if the whole choir had sung certain passages for single voices.

However, here was the opportunity for the horns to shine and for the support of the organ to be heard, but I have to say that the long instrumental postlude cried out for the greater spiritual impact that sombre brass instruments might have provided. Nevertheless, there was sufficient musical power in this careful and faithful performance to be moved by the greatness of the music.

The third Purcell anthem, the well-known Bell Anthem, ‘Rejoice in the Lord Alway’, ended the first half. Such a different and obviously less deeply felt piece again employed solo voices quite extensively in the verse sections: Virginia Earle, Paddy Geddes and Shawn Condon; their contributions were agreeable and significant, even though a certain tentativeness again suggested inadequate rehearsal.

Two Requiems
It was interesting if not revelatory to hear Puccini’s truncated part of the Requiem – the opening section, Requiem aeternam, written in 1905 for the 4th anniversary of Verdi’s death. In a suitably pious tone, with organ joining the orchestral accompaniment, there were, naturally, distinctive traces of the operatic Puccini. The choir seemed better attuned to it than they had been to the Purcell works.

Then Fauré’s Requiem.  The rich opening chords from the orchestra presaged a performance that was faithful to Fauré’s original conception, and thoroughly suited the church’s acoustic (it was premiered in Fauré’s own church, the great Madeleine in the middle of Paris); it included the church’s main organ too, sustaining a prolonged pedal note in the Introit under the pianissimo full choir.  There was much to admire and genuinely to enjoy; consoling men’s voices singing the repeat of the words ‘Requiem aeternam’ were lovely. And the unaccompanied soprano moments in the following Kyrie touched the emotions.

The benefits of a fine orchestra were very clear in the opening of the Offertorium, and later, before the calming entry of sombre voices; and the tremulous solo from baritone Daniel O’Connor, with ‘Hostias’, followed by the reprise of the first passage’s choral writing, sung in exemplary ensemble, created a rich and satisfying statement.

In the magically spiritual Sanctus Anna van der Zee’s violin solo soared over particularly lovely high voices, momentarily disturbed by the dramatic men’s voices in the concluding ‘Hosanna in excelsis’, an episode that offered a very special emotional commentary.

The organ introduces the solo soprano (Daisy Venables) voice in the Pie Jesu, which was a particularly successful episode that in no way calls for larger forces than were available here.

Men, tenors only I think, sang the first section of the calm Agnus Dei, followed by the full choir repeating the first passage, gently becoming more intense.  One of the most arresting yet magical episodes, one that came off very well was the change of gear for the final lines, ‘Requiem aeternam’, switching back to the home key of D minor.

Baritone O’Connor enjoyed another lyrical solo episode opening the Libera me; and though we are told that Fauré avoided the punitive ‘Dies Irae’ which is intrinsic in the normal Requiem setting, a brief statement of it appeared, with horns at hand, in the latter stage of the Libera me.

And no matter how familiar the In paradisum has become, it too, with a more conspicuous organ accompaniment and the high soprano voices by themselves, worked its magic, certainly on me, and I’m sure on the entire audience.

While the Purcell pieces had presented certain difficulties, whatever challenges the Fauré offered were handled with the deepest sensitivity, quietude and conviction.


SONGS FOR NOBODIES – Ali Harper explores the ordinary and the fabulous

Songs for Nobodies

a play by Joanna Murray-Smith

Ali Harper (actor/singer)
Trio – Daniel Hayles (piano)/Johnny Lawrence (double bass)/Lance Philip (drums)
Director – Ross Gumbley

Circa Theatre, Wellington

Sunday, July 8th, 2018

Having previously enjoyed Ali Harper’s one-woman shows Legendary Divas and A Doris Day Special,  I was eagerly looking forward to my “latest” theatrical outing in her presence, which I imagined would be her “take” on the singers mentioned in the pre-show publicity. Apart from Maria Callas, the famous names listed were ones I actually knew very little about, so as well as being entertained, I was expecting to be informed via a kind of mini-theatrical biopic of each of them. I did recall the publicity mentioning “encounters between five everyday women whose lives had been touched in some ways by five legendary divas”, but still expected that the singers would be the ones ultimately in centre-stage.

I was surprised, therefore, to encounter a distinctly muted and downbeat series of scenarios featuring in each case a young woman who had at some or other time encountered one of these legendary artists, and who was telling the story of the interaction from her own viewpoint. Here was Ali Harper, presented in a manner far removed from the glittering glamour and self-possession normally associated with famous performers, taking on the personas of a series of “nobodies” – a cloakroom attendant, an usher, a young English/French girl, a junior reporter, and a nanny. It was through these ordinary young women that the “Songs For Nobodies” playwright Joanne Murray-Smith allowed us tantalising glimpses of the stars. All ten characters, the singers and their admirers, were played (and their songs sung) by Ali Harper, moving both fluently and distinctively between personas via their different accents and attitudes with considerable skill and focus.

The music accompaniments were discreetly and ably provided by a trio of musicians, performing behind an opaque screen, both part of and distanced from the world conjured up by the single, immediate figure of Harper, like silhouettes who were animated by the music, evoking the smoky interiors of bars and club venues – pianist Daniel Hayles, double bassist Johnny Lawrence and percussionist Lance Philip.

Each scene was set with directness and simplicity, doing without any distraction in the form of colourful costuming or detailed sets (a chair was the only stage-prop needed).  All served to focus us on Harper, as she conjured up a stark feeling of each of the places and times, as well as of the characters, ordinary and extraordinary, that she portrayed. Her spoken delivery was strong and consistent with the voices of nearly all the “stars”, though in a few places sounding a tad under pressure during the more tremulous or agitated utterances from the “nobodies”, the rapid pace clouding a detail every now and then.

We were taken firstly to the Plaza Athene, in New York City, in 1961.  Bee Appleton, a cloakroom attendant, was depicted in turmoil at her recent breakup with her husband, reflecting whimsically on the meaning of happiness, and whether “you know when you have it” and what happens to you when it is gone. She found herself of a sudden in the presence of the show’s star performer, Judy Garland, and was able to perform a simple service to her by fixing a hem on her costume. They talked and a rapport sprang up between them, a feeling which communicated a fresh sense of worth and of being whole again to the young woman, a feeling that was then crystallised by Harper’s incredibly intense performance of Garland’s song “Come rain, come shine”, leaving us stunned with its impact as darkness ended the scene.

Next up was the character of Pearl Abelone a theatre usher in Kansas City in 1963, where country-and-western star Patsy Cline was performing. An aspiring performer herself, Pearl contrived to sing the song “Amazing Grace” to Cline before the star went on stage to perform her own scheduled number. The exchanges between Pearl and her idol led to the philosophical, with Cline observing that “applause doesn’t help you when you’re lying in bed at night”. Here, the music worked its simple but powerful spell of unquestioning faith, with Pearl’s strength of utterance also persuading the singer to choose the girl to back her in one of her vocal numbers on the stage – a touching moment. And tragedy was evoked, too, at the moment when Pearl related how the singer decided to fly back home to see her family, and died when the plane crashed – her devastating comment was “I never brought Patsy any luck, but she brought me plenty”.

Each one of the scenes deserved comment by dint of its individuality and varied response on Harper’s part, the third being an almost surreal tale involving French songstress Edith Piaf, the “Little Sparrow” – we met Edie Delamore in West Bridgeford, Nottingham, a librarian of half-English, half French descent, whose Father was in the French resistance. Edie related how he was saved from certain incarceration in the infamous Dachau, after Piaf contrived to smuggle him out as one of the supporting musicians she had when performing in the German prison camps. Harper re-evoked the girl’s love for her father and admiration for his bravery at only nineteen years of age as a member of the Resistance. She interspersing the girl’s wonderment at the “falling from the skies” feeling about her life with verses of a gutsy Piaf-like rendition of verses of the song “Non Je ne regrette rien”.

Following the fastidious spoken delivery of the English/French girl’s epic tale, we met the contrastingly racy American tones of a young journalist, Too Junior Jones, desperate to prove herself with “real people”assignments. She persuaded her boss (Harper brought off a gem of a cigar-sucking executive cameo, here!) to give her the job of an 800-word profile of singer Billie Holiday. Here, the outpourings were fast and furious, too much for absolute clarity at all times, but conveying the youngster’s confidence and energy in spadefuls. By contrast, the singer’s persona came across as thoroughly dissolute and miserable, refusing at first to answer any questions, but then breaking into the dark, disturbing tones of the horrifying song, Strange Fruits, a kind of discourse on the US white South’s history of racist violence towards black people. Harper’s tones here tellingly penetrated and realised something of that unique timbre of Holiday’s “thick blue ink” voice.

Eventually Holiday told some of her story, reflecting that her life had been “one big problem”, that of “doin’ everythin’ too soon”. She had no musical training, but still became the first black woman to sing with a white band (Artie Shaw and his Orchestra) in the United States. Sadly, promoters created problems for Shaw and his band over Holiday because of her race and her unique vocal style, and Holiday had to eventually leave Shaw to go out on her own. Though experiencing occasional success and maintaining her reputation as a leading jazz singer, she developed addictions to both opium and heroin which eventually led to her death in 1959. Her funeral was reportedly attended by 3,000 people.

I thought the last evocation, that of a connection between opera singer Maria Callas and Orla McDonagh, the Irish Nanny of Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis’s children, the most tenuous. The encounter highlighted a pivotal moment in Maria Callas’s life, her wooing by Onassis after she and her husband, Meneghini, had been invited on a cruise on his yacht, the Christina. The observations of Orla, the Nanny, indicated that all was not well with Callas’s marriage, and Orla’s own less-than-salubrious interactions with Onassis himself underlined the man’s inveterate womanising which, of course, was to eventually leave the unfortunate Callas abandoned as she had done her own husband. Interesting and absorbing as it all was, it seemed less “involved” as an encounter compared with the others, a quality which I thought was unfortunately intensified by Harper’s brave, but at the aria’s climax, somewhat strained rendition of Puccini’s “Vissi d’arte” from the opera “Tosca”, one of Callas’s most famous roles. Coming at the end of the demanding programme, I felt it overtaxed Harper unfairly, in view of what she had already achieved – perhaps a less operatic approach (which the trio’s skilful accompaniment initially suggested, and which worked well) might have better served those taxing ”dramatic soprano” moments. Even so, the Callas episode seemed relatively “removed” to me, compared to the visceral encounters with greatness experienced by the other “nobodies”.

Despite this, the whole was a fantastic performance from Harper, equally convincing across a range of vignettes, from the vulnerable but hopeful young women touched by their encounters with greatness, to the stars themselves, somewhat bruised and battered by their popularity, but all showing aspects of the magnificence that earned them their fame. As I’ve said, the pace of the delivery was, in places, fast and furious, in moments too much for the meaning of the words, so that I missed the full impact of certain of Harper’s renditions of the homespun philosophies and observations. Still, one was left in certain knowledge of the transforming effects that stars could have in the lives of everyday people, the resonances of their songs and the inspiration that they provided. It all earned Ali Harper justly-deserved acclaim for her memorable and richly-wrought performance.