Inspirare’s partnership with Youth Choirs a resounding success

ILLUMINATIONS – Inspirare Choir, directed by Mark L.Stamper

PAUL BASLER – Missa Kenya
Richard Taylor (tenor) / Rachel Thomson, piano / Shadley van Wyk, horn
Jacob Randall, James Fuller, percussion
Wellington College Chorale / Men of Inspirare

IMANT RAMINSH – Missa Brevis
Maaike Christie-Beekmann (mezzo-soprano)/Rachel Thomson, piano
Queen Margaret College Chorale / Altissimi, Samuel Marsden Collegiate School, Karori
Women of Inspirare

JOHN RUTTER – Mass for the Children
Pasquale Orchard (soprano) / Daniel O’Connor (baritone)
Orchestra – Rebecca Steel, flute / Merran Cooke, oboe /Moira Hurst, clarinet
Leni Maeckle, bassoon / Shadley van Wyk, horn / Vanessa Souter, harp
Vicky Jones, bass / Michael Fletcher, organ / Grant Myhill , timpani
Jacob Randall and James Fuller, percussion
Wellington Young Voices / Metropolitean Cathedral Boys’ Choir

also featuring:
Helene Pohl, violin / Peter Gjelsten, violin
Hayden Nickel, viola / Rolf Gjelsten, ‘cello

CRAIG COURTENAY – Ukrainian Alleluia
Tejas Menon, TJ Shirtcliffe, guitars / Rachel Thomson, piano

Wellington College Chorale / Men of Inspirare

St.Mary of the Angels Church, Wellington

Saturday 15th September, 2018

This second concert that I’ve attended which featured the voices of Inspirare, a choir founded by their director, Mark L.Stamper, couldn’t have been more different from the first one (an inspirational performance of Sergei Rachmaninov’s All Night Vigil earlier this year), but was equally impressive in achieving what it had obviously set out to do. In the same venue as where the previous concert had held its audience spellbound, here was something more akin to a true community event, or even a school prizegiving, but with the intent of demonstrating to all and sundry what singers of all ages could achieve in tandem by dint of hard work and inspired direction.

A glance at the credits above will give the reader an idea of the variety of forces involved in this presentation – in itself it’s a tribute to both the organising skills and the visionary scope of Stamper that the different strands worked together so well. Though the audience was made up largely of people connected with the performers, a good many, like myself, were there primarily for musical reasons, drawn by the prospect of hearing repertoire which, if not familiar, certainly looked and sounded innovative and exciting, and especially if performed with a similar level of skill and intensity to that which for me made the Rachmaninov work so brilliantly.

It took but a few seconds of the opening item, a work by Z. Randall Stroope called “Tarantella” (curiously, not the usual 6/8 “spider-dance” tarantella rhythm one usually encounters in music so named), for us to register the performance commitment of the young singers of the Wellington College Chorale, the voices arrestingly full-toned from the beginning, and maintaining the rhythmic energies of the music’s running trajectories with great excitement, aided by handclapping and choreographic body movements, reflecting the adroit angularities of the accompaniments from the string players. I especially enjoyed the singers’ synchronised nodding heads indicating canonic or fugal entries, towards the piece’s conclusion.

We then got some sombre unaccompanied alleluias from the lower voices at the beginning of Craig Courtenay’s “Ukrainian Alleluia”, the tones beautifully hued with no lack of variety – the basses rich and sonorous, the tenors sweet and true. A lovely cascading effect was to be had at certain inner trajectory points (one of them finishing with an unscheduled slamming of a door somewhere that didn’t however disturb the singers’ flow, nor ruffle the harmonic clusters of the lines in the slightest!)….

An arrangement of the song “Cibola” brought out stunning attack on the song’s first note, thrown out by the singers almost defiantly – then, to rolling guitar accompaniments, the word “Cibola” was tossed every which way with remarkable dexterity, accompanied by vocal exclamations which added to the variety of colour and texture. Altogether these three works covered a lot of ground in both vocal and instrumental spheres, reflecting the conductor’s interest in variety and innovation as a means of securing maximum involvement in the music-making.

The same group of voices then prepared to present the first of the three major works on the programme, the “Missa Kenya” by Paul Basler. The composer worked as a teacher at the University of Kenyatta in Nairobi, thus coming into contact with a Kenyan vocal tradition whose elements he incorporated into his work, fused with Western traditions. We thus had a solo singer with chorus using elements such as what theorists term “call and response” and “call and refrain”, with the soloist and chorus sometimes overlapping. One would expect African folk music in general to be rhythmically rich, with rhythms sometimes playing alongside or against one another; and so it was here, particularly so in Basler’s treatment of the “Gloria”.

Originally written for mixed choir, the version of “Missa Kenya” performed this evening was for male voices only, with the Credo and Agnus Dei omitted. A strong unison beginning which had already showed off the strength and richness of these voices in “Cibola” was again employed at the “Kyrie’s” beginning, though broken soon after into different lines, ritualistic and dance-like, and underpinned by the composer’s instrument, the horn, and piano and percussion, though concluding with a return to more declamatory vocal gestures, counterpointed by the horn writing.

The “Gloria” I thought wonderfully “jivy”, the solo tenor and the choir exchanging phrases, and interspersing more declamatory passages. I liked the idea of the tenor (Richard Taylor) being more a “voice from the choir” rather than pushed too far to the front, even if his voice was occasionally swamped – he put across a true and songful account of his phrases, and the exchanges gave a more spontaneous feel to the music’s folk-like style. More ritualistic was the “Sanctus”, here joyful and bell-like, with the voices answered by splendid piano scintillations, the horn joining in with the voices in the raising-up of tones on high, most evident and celebratory in the “Hosannas”! Splendid!

There was a “changing of the guard” for the next item, Imant Raminsh’s “Missa Brevis” being sung by various female groups, the  Queen Margaret College Chorale, Altissime, from Samuel Marsden Collegiate School, all with the women’s voices from Inspirare, along with soloist mezzo-soprano Maaike Christie-Beekmann, and accompanist Rachel Thomson. Though written for a children’s choir, the work could also be sung by women and children. Beginning with the “Kyrie”, the work opened beautifully with a canonically-repeated “Kyrie” phrase, before the soloist entered with “Christe” – all very impassioned, with the choir supporting the soloist and the top notes made by the children’s group simply breathtaking in effect! When the “Kyrie ” returned with its canon-like phrases, the mezzo-soprano sang a descant-like line in accompaniment.

Contrasting with this was the “Gloria” with its toccata-like piano introduction, generating great expectation and excitement from the voices, rising to a pitch with Glorificamus te. Christie-Beekman’s rich mezzo gave us a heartfelt Gratias agimus tibi, answered by the choir, after which the heart of the movement was laid open with the sombre processional beginning at Qui tollis peccata mundi by the soloist, accompanied wordlessly by the choir up to Miserere, where the choir repeats Qui tollis – all very dark and intensely moving, with the concentration beautifully sustained, and reaching a climax with Miserere nobis, after which the prayer occasioned a brief calm, here, blown away by the attention-grabbing Quoniam, whose agitations led to a dancing fugue at Cum sancto spiritu, the singers exulting more and more vigorously until reaching a joyous Amen!

The Inspirare women’s voices added their strength and colour to the “Sanctus” – all most mellifluously realised, other-worldly in atmosphere, with stratospheric swayings and celestial harmonies thrown into relief by a dancing Hosanna in excelsis. Christie-Beekman’s voice ennobled the “Benedictus”, with Rachel Thomson’s piano practically orchestral in its support, while at the Hosanna’s reprise the music simply “took off”, giving the church’s acoustic a proper workout!

“Agnus Dei” was a properly concerted effort, solemn at the beginning, with the idiom straightforwardly melodic, and, quite unexpectedly, what sounded like a solo oboe accompanying the voices most affectingly at the repeat of the opening. Christie Beekman led the third “Agnus Dei” into Dona nobis pacem, the children’s choir positively radiant-sounding when joining in, contributing to a resounding and moving conclusion from the whole ensemble.

In welcoming us back for the concert’s second half, Mark Stamper reiterated a request for the audience to allow the separate Mass movements of what was to follow to continue uninterrupted, and to save its applause for the end – part of the initial confusion was, I think, having the three separate pieces at the concert’s beginning, which as stand-alone works each deserved audience acclamation, but then got us into an “applaud everything” mode. The message, diplomatically worded, was re-received, and, I think, understood.

So, to the “Mass of the Children”, a work completed by John Rutter in 2003. Associated with the loss of his son in an accident in 2001, the work represented at the time a kind of “return” to the life of a composer, but also a tribute in tandem to his “formative” experience as a pupil of Highgate School chosen to sing in Britten’s War Requiem under the baton of the composer himself. Rutter wanted to create something that might replicate a bringing together of children and adult performers “in a similar enriching way”. This performance thus brought together the Wellington Young Voices, the Metropolitean Cathedral Boys’ Choir and Inspirare with two young soloists, soprano Pasquale Orchard and baritone Daniel O’Connor, and a chamber orchestra.

A radiant, Respighi-like opening to the work brought forth luminously shimmering instrumental textures, introducing the children’s voices, not with the Kyrie, as is usual in a Mass, but with lines from a seventeenth-century hymn written by Bishop Thomas Ken – “Awake my soul and with the sun”, after which the adult choir sang the “Kyrie” – here the flowing lines reminded me in their manner of Faure’s Requiem, with its fluent blending of lyricism and impassioned declamation. The children’s voices sang “Christe Eleison”, with accompaniments I found glittering, and a touch spectral, followed by the return of “Kyrie Eleison” with soprano and baritone joining with the choir, Pascale Orchard’s voice here strong and vibrant, and Daniel O’Connor’s sonorous and steady. At the end the organ made a deep, resoundingly satisfying impression.

Growing in energy and light, the “Gloria” rose from the depths, its rhythmic trajectories enlivening the performers and their words, children and then adults echoing the opening cries, then revelling in the jazzy angularities leading to Et in terra pax with its cherubic bell-like chants for the children’s voices. Soprano and baritone exchanged phrases at Domine Deus Rex caelestis with the music at Filius patris taking on the character of a floating ostinato as the music arched its way  through Qui tollis peccata mundi, the lines nicely balanced by the soloists throughout right up to Miserere nobis. A vibrant return to life came with Quonian, the music jazzy and energetic in these performers’ hands, carrying us away with its exuberance to the end.

The gently glowing wind arabesque-like solos brought in the “Sanctus” presented by the choir like a gently-tolling bell, the voices rising to impassioned tones at the Hosannas, and again from the Pleni sunt caeli onwards. What a gorgeous panoply of wind sounds accompanying the children’s singing of “Benedictus”, itself so affecting with those innocent, ethereal tones – such drama in the contrast between adult and children’s voices, here! As the soloists sang the Benedictus as a duet, the instruments provided heart-easing counterpoints to the music’s simple intensities.

If the impression thus far was of a composer who preferred light to darkness, the grimmer, haunted opening of the Agnus Dei  dispelled the notion for the setting’s duration – the organ’s tones of disquiet, the haunted strings and winds, and the chromatic lines of the voices in their Agnus Dei utterances instigated currents of lament that gradually built to great waves, reinforced by tubular bells sounding a tocsin of gloom – perhaps one might regard the introduction at this point of the children’s choir with an angelic setting of William Blake’s “Little Lamb who made thee?” as much an unsubtle contrast as a masterstroke (critical opinions vary on the topic!), but the very sound of the voices here acted like balm to the sensibilities, irradiating the gloom with light and hope, until the music again darkened as the voices took up the repeated pleas of Miserere nobis.

Came the work’s final section, the “Dona Nobis pacem”, beginning with somewhat Elgarian string-phrases, and a baritone solo (supported by beautifully-turned wind solos), Rutter setting the words of a prayer “Lord open thou mine eyes that I may see” by Lancelot Andrews (1555-1626) to a nicely-turned melody, delivered confidently and strongly by Daniel O’Connor, then enabling the soprano to affectingly carry the melody further with different words, those of a 5th-century text called St.Patrick’s Breastplate.

The work’s final section featured the adult voices (choir and soloists) reiterating the words “Agnus Dei” and  “Dona nobis pacem” while the children’s voices soared above the chant with Thomas Ken’s “Glory to thee, my God this night” set to Thomas Tallis’s well-known canonic melody, the music gently subsiding into silence at the end, everything, as throughout the work, most sensitively balanced and controlled by Mark Stamper.

There could be no doubt as to the commitment and involvement of all the musicians throughout this ambitious presentation, one whose on-going strength of purpose, depth of interpretation and skill of execution represented a resounding and well-deserved tribute to the various choirs and choir directors involved, to the soloists and instrumentalists, and to Inspirare Choir and Mark Stamper,  its “inspirational” Music Director.




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