Excellent choral concert from three young Wellington choirs and the New Zealand Youth Choir

Triple C: A Capital Singfest

Choirs: FilCoro (Wellington Filipino Choir); Wellington Young Voices (children’s choir); Wellington Youth Choir; New Zealand Youth Choir

Music by Richard Rodgers, John Rutter, Bob Chilcott, Stephen Leek, Antonio Lotti, Charles Wood, Ben Parry, Lassus, Leonie Holmes, Brahms, Tuirina Wehi, David Hamilton

Opera House, Manners Street

Sunday 9 September, 3 pm

This concert by mainly young choral singers was promoted as ‘A celebration of great choral and ensemble singing’. Each choir was to sing alone and with one or two other choirs and finally all joined to sing David Hamilton’s Dance-song to the Creator.

The publicity also remarked on the choice of venue: the gorgeous Opera House. And of course I share their affection for one of the few remaining turn-of-the-century theatres, splendid in the detailed and beautiful restoration of both foyer and auditorium; where I had my first teen-aged experiences of live theatre and opera.

The concert began with the Filipino choir, Filcoro, singing an indigenous Tagalog language song rather enchantingly, and then a couple of Richard Rodgers’ loveliest songs, ‘You’ll never walk alone’ (from Carousel) and ‘Climb every mountain’ (The Sound of Music). Under Mark Stamper, they showed they had nothing to learn about singing Broadway musical.

They were then joined by Wellington Young Voices, a delightful group of young singers – aged eight to fourteen – to sing John Rutter’s ‘Look at the World’; voices from Filcoro took the first verse with a delightful air of timidity and all singers joined for the chorus.

As with so much in the concert, here was a fairly slight piece that gained through being taken seriously.

Setting the pattern for comings and goings, the Philippines choir then left and Young Voices alone for two songs by Bob Chilcott: ‘Laugh Kookaburra’ and ‘Like a Singing Bird’, both light, lilting, almost dancing, through tricky harmonies. Composers like Chilcott, Eric Whitacre, Morten Lauridsen and Rutter, among others including several New Zealanders, have brought about a revival of contemporary choral music which for some decades has seemed doomed by avant-garde pressures.

The Wellington Youth Choir, which had the honour of singing with the Orpheus Choir in the previous evening’s Orchestra Wellington performance of Verdi’s Requiem, arrived to sing another challenging song, Monkey and Turtle by Stephen Leek, that also made demands on their part singing.

The Wellington Youth Choir alone, under Jared Corbett, could tackle something even more sophisticated; an eight-part setting of the Crucifixus by Antonio Lotti, a Vivaldi and Bach contemporary, and then a spiritual ‘Get away, Jordan’, another piece that called for well managed part singing, and the choir sounded in extremely fine form.

New Zealand Youth Choir
The New Zealand Youth Choir then joined the Wellington Youth Choir to sing Oculi omnium by Charles Wood, English composer 10 or 15 years younger than Parry and Stanford. The choir did not appear on stage but the conductor drew attention to them in the grand circle, from which the voices gained an ethereal quality.

(My colleague Rosemary Collier has added a gloss about Oculi omnium.

“‘Oculi Omnium’ was a tribute to Peter Godfrey for many years the conductor of the choir,. It was always sung as a grace at choir residential weekends and at the NZCF weekend ‘Sing Aotearoa’ and other functions.  And a big massed choir of which I was a part, sang it at his memorial service.  It’s a beautiful piece with gorgeous harmonies.)

The second half was devoted to the NZYC, the most experienced of the four choirs, starting with Ben Parry’s Flame, with men and women separated, right and left. It clearly had a religious significance, suggesting at first a flickering flame, slowly, increasing in intensity and complexity.

I hadn’t heard of Parry. This is what I found on the Internet: Ben Parry (born 1965) is a British musician, composer, conductor, singer, arranger and producer in both classical and light music fields. He is the co-director of London Voices, Assistant Director of Music at King’s College, Cambridge, director of the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain.

And further, Rosemary Collier added: Ben Parry has been to NZ.  I rather think he was adjudicator at the Big SIng last year or the previous one.

So, a very appropriate figure to open the NZYC’s contribution at this concert. Conducted by David Squire, its performance challenges were most sensitively handled.

Then came Lassus’s Aurora lucis rutilat, in which the singers divided into two distinct four-part choirs and it was a delight, quite the contrary of the grim, ‘hell-firish’ words (which I looked up).

Leonie Holmes’s ‘Through coiled stillness’ was the first of a couple of New Zealand compositions. Its words were recited in both Maori and English, and the piece involved singing in both languages, in a musical idiom that had only subtle suggestions of a Maori musical influence, and which was neither too traditional nor too avant-garde. It was evidently good to perform.

Then came all four of Brahms’s Vier Quartette, Op 92 They are O schöne Nacht, Spätherbst, Abendlied and Warum?

Those of us who think we know Brahms pretty well (meaning orchestral, piano and chamber music and a dozen of the familiar songs), are always surprised to look at the huge list of his solo songs, part songs, choral works that he composed throughout his life, and I’d never come across these ones. They involved Michael Stewart at the piano; they were varied, though always hard to place in the appropriate emotional context and so not easy to sing. Clearly, they would form one of the choir’s principal repertoire works this year; and the choir demonstrated musical understanding and splendid technical competence.

The bracket ended with Waerenga-a-Hika, a narrative chorus arranged by Robert Wiremu, that tells of the story of the siege of the Waerenga-a-Hika pa, north-west of Gisborne, in 1865. A mixture of sombre chant, and a certain amount of lyrical song, with distinctly contrasting voices in English and Maori that varied between sophisticated melodic singing and traditional, haka-derived performance.

Finally, all four choirs reappeared to sing David Hamilton’s Dance Song to the Creator, syncopated and jazzy, under David Squire, with two pianists (Mark Stamper and Michael Stewart), and percussionist Dominic Jacquemard, accompanying.  And they all stayed to sing an encore, the familiar and always rather moving Ka Waiata Ki a Maria (composed by Richard Puanaki).

Though singing has suffered a huge retreat in the last couple of generations, from being a standard activity in both primary and secondary schools, and church choirs, it survives, rather unevenly spread, but the widespread existence of youth choirs and other choirs for young people helps to maintain its visibility – audibility.

But the art of singing and choral activity remain at an awful disadvantage in terms of being known about. The New Zealand Youth Choir and the Secondary Students’ choir can win extraordinary prizes in international competitions and yet be unnoticed by the media; at best given a 3cm paragraph at the bottom of page 8.

And so, it would have been good to see a larger audience for this rewarding and delightful concert.


Leave a Reply

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