Rutter’s lovely Magnificat accompanied by carols of bells and the Orpheus Choir in sold out concert

The Orpheus Choir of Wellington conducted by Brent Stewart
‘Carol of the Bells’

John Rutter’s Magnificat
Carol of the Bells by Mykola Leontovych and Peter Wilhousky (arr. Barlow Bradford)
Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on Christmas Carols
Mozart: ‘Laudate Dominum’ from Vesperae solennes de confessore, K 339
Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus from Messiah

Wellington Cathedral of Saint Paul

Saturday 24 November, 7:30 pm

Though conductor Brent Stewart entertained the audience with his introduction to the unconventional Carol of the Bells, he waited till its end before engaging in his lively promotion of the choir’s next year’s programme, using the choir to sing striking excerpts from Mozart’s Requiem and Carmina Burana by Carl Orff. As well, he mentioned three concerts in which the choir will sing with both Orchestra Wellington and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (Mahler’s second symphony and Messiah).

And taking a leaf out of Orchestra Wellington’s highly successful promotional gambit, Brent Stewart drew attention to the offer of their two independent concerts for the price of one: till Christmas Eve, buy the two for $60.

That this concert had the ‘Full House’ sign at the door, should be added encouragement to re-subscribe in 2019.

But the concert had started with Rutter’s Magnificat, the opening part of which rather drew attention to the famous acoustic of the cathedral which tends to protest at loud and complex music, making it difficult to understand words (though in Latin, so no worse for those familiar with it than for those innocent of the language) but more seriously harder to discern the musical details or to hear clearly what instruments were used in the accompaniment. A stripped-down orchestra was employed, of piano, flute, horn, trumpet, trombone and percussion.

I had the feeling I’d heard it before, and so it proved as I searched in the Middle C archive. I had, in fact, reviewed a performance that Thomas Nikora conducted with Cantoris, with Mark Dorrell’s piano accompaniment, in July 2017.

Rutter’s orchestration was quite colourful, even in the composer’s reduced chamber orchestra version, though without any strings, and this ensemble enhanced this lively and radiant work. I think it was wise to leave strings out in favour of winds and percussion, which lent a picturesque note, leaving it to the voices to supply the timbres and the more legato playing that would have been delivered by strings.

So although the acoustics were a bit confused during noisy passages in the opening ‘Magnificat anima mea’ and later in more furious episodes such as the ‘Fecit potentiam’, the joyful spirit and the confidence that infused the opening chorus nevertheless filled the cathedral with splendid enthusiasm, and the intervening gentler passages were clear and beautiful.

Particularly memorable is the haunting setting of the beautiful 15th century poem, ‘Of a Rose, a lovely Rose’ that Rutter inserted. It fitted the spirit of the motet movingly, both in meaning and in musical character, and it offered a proper opportunity to admire the choir’s studied and sensitive singing. In the words of a programme note found on the Internet, it “uses the image of a rose as an allegory for the Blessed Virgin Mary and her powers to intercede for mankind”.

‘Quia fecit’ then set the record straight with its insistence on God’s might, with timpani emphasising the point. Next, at the ‘Et misericordia’, soprano Pasquale Orchard appeared, uttering many repetitions of that word to create a lovely effect: the horn offered warm support. The choir alone handled the ever-more important message, putting down the mighty and exalting the humble and meek, the main message of the ‘Fecit potentiam’.

The soprano, with help from the flute, returned to the front to lead in the gentle ‘Esurientes’ which further expanded on the sadly misleading report that “He hath filled the hungry with good things and the rich he hath sent empty away”. (In my Latin studies I never encountered esurientes – ‘the hungry’, though sure enough, it’s in Lewis and Short) The choir expressed it properly as a lament rather than a triumph and its final pages sung by Orchard, repeating ‘in saecula’, was particularly lovely.

Timpani and winds lined up for an ecstatic rendering of the short ‘Gloria Patri’. Rutter attached the ‘Sancta Maria’ to the Gloria, and here was Pasquale Orchard’s final, beautiful appearance, fading out with a gentle ‘Alleluia’. The Coda as it were, is ‘Sicut erat’, which sounded a bit perfunctory, ritualistic to me, sort-of wrapping it up cheerfully with a good orchestral finale-style peroration.

But that’s not to deny the wonderful musical quality if the piece, such a refreshing corrective to the majority of serious classical being written today.

The balance of the concert included its title-track, Carol of the Bells, a short, oddball work written during the First World War by Ukrainian composer Leontovych, then re-arranged by American Wilhousky for orchestra; it employs the cathedral bells as well as hand bells. It proved a splendid exclamatory piece, delivered with great gusto by all concerned. The Wellington Society of Bellringers were on hand to bring this aspect of the concert to an audience beyond the walls of the cathedral.

Like Rutter, Vaughan Williams was one of the long list of religiously sceptical composers who seem to have produced some of the greatest religious music. His Fantasia on Christmas Carols, opened with the new digital organ, then the piano, before women’s voices, humming, emerged. Baritone Joe Haddow joined at the second verse of ‘The Truth sent from Above’, and finally the whole choir entered. Haddow’s diction was exemplary though much of the choir’s texts escaped me – not that this music is about the message conveyed by the words. Men, appropriately, launched into ‘Come all ye worthy Gentlemen’, but equality with the women was soon restored, and it was lively and harmonically opulent. The third carol, ‘On Christmas Night’, attracted contributions from organ, piano, brass, tubular bells and timpani, as well as Haddow, and brought this delightful little anthology to a fine conclusion.

The concert ended with the beautiful ‘Laudate Dominum’ from Mozart’s Solemn Vespers, with Pasquale singing the part famously done by Kiri (and lots of others); if her voice lacked a comparable degree of sustained legato, the whole piece was heart-warming.

And most of the audience saw fit to stand, true to tradition, for the Halleluia Chorus, and they clapped, many remaining standing, for quite a few minutes to offer choir, conductor, soloists and instrumentalists well-earned praise for a fine, varied and greatly enjoyed concert.


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