Alleluia: varied settings splendidly delivered by Inspirare and Schola Cantorum (St Mark’s School) under Mark Stamper

Alleluia: Resolution through Celebration

Artistic director: Mark Stamper; accompanied by Michael Stewart; director of Schola Cantorum: Anya Nazaruk
Solo voices: Pepe Becker, Matt Barris, Isaac Stone, William Pereira, Ruth Armishaw, Sue Robinson, Garth Norman, Joe Haddow
Instrumental soloists: Toby Pringle (trumpet), Tim Jenkin (tambourine), Dominic Groom (horn)

Settings of Alleluia by;
Keith Christopher, Lyn Williams, Ralph Manuel, David Conte, Thomas LaVoy, Srul Irving Glick, Eric Whitacre, Handel, Paul Basler, Randall Thompson, Beethoven, Leonard Cohen (arr. Philip Lawson), Sydney Guillaume, David Bednall

Wellington Cathedral of St Paul

Saturday 23 March, 7:30 pm 

Best to start with Mark Stamper’s own description of this concert of settings of ‘Alleluia’: “fourteen unique and innovative settings of this glorious text. The selections will come from different musical periods dating back to the Baroque and on through 2019”. There can be few words or phrases that have inspired such generally positive and hopeful music, though there are other memorable phrases in the Mass.

Mark Stamper’s choices were heavily weighted toward the 20th century, in fact some of it of the 21st century. For those who tend to be wary of contemporary classical music, there would have been no reason for discomfort as, unlike the music that many 20th century composers have felt it necessary to compose, choral music has more generally defied that trend. For there is no point in composing choral liturgical music that doesn’t beguile and engage listeners, but risks alienating the them.

The presence of two choirs was highlighted at once with the choir of St Mark’s school ranged in the front, women of Inspirare at the back while the men were lined up on the left aisle. After Mark Stamper’s introduction, a minute’s silence was observed to reflect on the previous week. Then the Cathedral’s Director of Music, Michael Stewart played a piece on the organ, which he named later as Solemn Melody by Henry Walford Davies (one of the worthy British organist/composer/teachers, about contemporary with Elgar)  ….

I will not attempt to comment on each of the fourteen pieces in much detail, but it’s reasonable to mention them all.

The combined choirs made a happy contribution with A Joyful Alleluia by contemporary American composer, Keith Christopher (born 1957 in Portland, Oregon) who teaches in Nashville Tennessee. His piece and its warmly committed performance set the tone through the way the singers were disposed around the cathedral; and with the dynamic variety the two choirs could create made for an engaging performance.

Alone, Schola Cantorum sang Festive Alleluia by Lyn Williams, an Australian composer born in 1963, who runs the Sydney Children’s Choir, and has been much celebrated for her work with children’s choirs. With the choir conducted by its music director Anya Nazaruk, it was a bright and attractive piece, phrases piling one on the other, yet preserving good clarity and liveliness. The Schola Cantorum later sang the Alleluia of David Conte (born 1955, he teaches at the San Francisco Conservatorium), bright high voices again making a splendid impact in this big acoustic, with Stamper here at the piano.

Apart from the last two items, Inspirare sang the rest of the programme.

The Alleluia of Ralph Manuel, born in 1951 in Oklahoma, opened with a string of slowly evolving harmonies, in what might be called a popular style, but an attractive way for Inspirare, alone, to present themselves.  Thomas LaVoy, a much younger composer from Michigan, born 1990, studied in Aberdeen and Wales. His Alleluia, in an unsurprisingly American idiom, expressed itself in straightforward terms, yet increased in intensity towards the end. Srul Irving Glick is Canadian-born, in 1934. His piece was brief, thus not allowing its repetition of ‘Alleluia’ and its syncopated simplicity to outlast itself.

Then came the first composer known to me: Eric Whitacre, who I only recently discovered was only in his forties (born 1970), though very well-known with a solid reputation. His Alleluia did seem to reveal a more interesting handling of the subject, if not as meaning (which might be an absurd expectation) then certainly in musical attractiveness, in the variety of its vocal colours and the sensitive way the choir handled them. (I did not especially notice soloists Pepe Becker and Matt Barris).

Inevitably, I guess, we had the Halleluja from Messiah in which the audience not only stood but engaged itself in.

An Alleluia by Paul Basler, born 1963 in Florida, followed the interval. His background included study or work in Kenya and Wales, and as a hornist himself, there were obbligato horn (Dominique Groom) and drum – here tambourine (Tim Jenkin), with Michael Stewart at the piano.  It was a charming, flowing composition, demonstrating, as does Whitacre, that one can still write engaging and worthwhile music in a tonal idiom.

Randall Thompson (1899 – 1984) was one of the four dead composers celebrated in the concert. Here was an engaging and moving setting by one of the most distinguished 20th century American composers. Slow, mediative with lovely high, clear voices with men here in a secondary, yet conspicuous role.

The Alleluia is the last movement of Beethoven’s Christ on the Mount of Olives, his only oratorio which is not much performed, in New Zealand anyway. It was sung with organ accompaniment; its character is neither pensive nor pious, as are some settings, but with its lively tempos was performed here, at least, in a spirit of exultation.

Leonard Cohen was one of those musicians whose music has strong appeal to many kinds of audience, so-called popular as well as classical (speaking for myself anyway). This arrangement by Philip Lawson of his moving Alleluia was done for the Kings Singers. Solo singers (Isaac Stone, William Pereira, Ruth Armishaw, Sue Robinson and Gareth Norman) were prominent here, lending a well-integrated yet interestingly contrasted range of voices to this very singular song.

The last two pieces again involved the Schola Cantorum singing alongside Inspirare. First, Alleluia, Amen by Sydney Guillaume, born in Haiti in 1982 and has worked with choirs in several parts of the United States. Rhythmically intricate, it used the two choirs attractively and ingeniously: children in the centre and Inspirare divided on either side. Scraps of melody came from different sections, expressing varying emotions and presenting music of real charm.

Last was An Easter Alleluia by talented English composer David Bednall, born in 1979, who, if you look at his website, has a large range of commercial recordings of his music to his credit. A lovely melody emerges from a series of rising motifs that culminate in a moving performance of one of the most impressive pieces sung in this surprisingly varied programme (considering the superficially limited subject matter treated by these many composers).

So even though the concert’s theme – a single word – might have looked like risking monotony, there was surprising variety in the styles and emotional character. Naturally, one found some more interesting and appealing than others. On top of it all were the clear signs of careful and sympathetic preparation and rehearsal resulting in always colourful and lively performances. A splendid and interesting evening.


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