Warming our hearts in mid-winter – Cantoris directed by Thomas Nikora

Cantoris Choir presents:
Music by Eric Whitacre, Morgan Andrew-King, Samuel Berkahn, Thomas Nikora, Robert Schumann, Ludwig van Beethoven and Josef Haydn

ERIC WHITACRE – Sleep / The Seal Lullaby / Lux Aurumque
SAMUEL BERKAHN – With Ships the Sea was Sprinkled
ROBERT SCHUMANN – The Two Grenadiers
JOSEF HAYDN – Cello Concerto in C Major (Ist Mvt.)
THOMAS NIKORA – Mass in E Minor

Barbara Paterson (soprano)
Morgan-Andrew King (baritone)
Samuel Berkahn (‘cello)
Liam Furey (piano)
Diana Muggleston (violin)
Thomas Nikora (piano and conductor)
Cantoris Choir

St.Mark’s Chapel, St. Mark’s Church School,

Saturday 27th July 2019

This was the kind of programme whose content and presentation couldn’t have done a better job of warming the cockles of both audience hearts and sensibilities, having already drawn our attention via the concert’s title to the evening’s delightful and characteristic seasonal ambiences. Choral items naturally enough made up the lion’s share of the presentations, but by way of contrast and variety we heard two songs for baritone with piano, and a piano-accompanied movement from a Haydn ‘Cello Concerto . Amazingly, too, we were given, during the course of the concert, no less than three (presumably world) premieres of works all written by composer/performers associated with Cantoris Choir, two of the singers and the choir’s conductor. It was all in line with an overall warmth of utterance that suggested “living music”, as if we were at something like a Bach family get-together, with various members coming forward as both creators and performers.

The  work of American composer Eric Whitacre has figured prominently of late in choral concerts worldwide, his range of compositions catering for professional and amateur groups alike. Here we had three of his works, each of  which illustrated both the music’s attractive craftsmanship and ready accessibility as regards performers and audiences. I should have liked to have heard Whitacre’s original setting of Robert Frost’s words from his poem “Stopping by Woods of a Snowy Evening” for his “Sleep” (the composer was denied publishing rights for his work by the poet’s estate, and new words for the setting had to be substituted!), but the alternative text seemed just as evocative for Whitacre’s purposes – the final word “sleep” (shared by the original Frost poem) made a haunting conclusion to a finely-crafted, sonorous performance by the choir.

I recently encountered Morgan-Andrew King on the operatic stage in the NZSM production at the Hannah Playhouse of Puccini’s one-acter Gianni Schicchi (playing the part of one of the avaricious relatives awaiting the death of a would-be benefactor), so was, naturally enough, intrigued to find that he composed as well as performed – his work  River of Song was inspired, he told us in a spoken introduction by the Waikato River, the writing cleverly evoking the movement of water, the piece’s wordless opening  conjuring up a multitude of impulses, currents and streamlets whose lines coalesced in rich harmonic surges that expanded warmly at climaxes, everything truly suggesting that the composer “knew” the music’s subject well.

Another Eric Whitacre piece The Seal Lullaby readily “sounded” its name, the story of the piece’s genesis and history adding to its piquancy – a most affecting lullaby, with a beautiful piano accompaniment. The piece’s wordless sequences took on a “living instrumental” quality, enhanced by the choir’s gorgeously-voiced tunings – lovely stuff!  As a comparison, Lux Aurumque, the piece that followed, by the same composer, had a far more “international” quality, a “sheen” whose quality impressed for different reasons to the Seal Lullaby. At the piece’s end the choir managed some exquisite harmonisings set against held notes.

Samuel Berkahn brought a breath of bracing air to the proceedings with his assertion that his music would, after Eric Whitacre’s, “wake everybody up!”. His piece, beginning with a catchy “waltz-trot” kind of rhythm, was named with words of Wordsworth’s, and set melodic lines to angular piano accompaniments, the voices teetering on the edges of fugues throughout their exchanges, Berkahn hinting tongue-in-cheek at his recent interest in Renaissance madrigals and baroque polyphony, and keeping us “primed” as to their encoded presences.

After the interval, we were treated to two songs, each of whose subject-matter was steeped in the early Romantic era, and given suitably full-blooded treatment via the sonorous baritone voice of Morgan-Andrew King, firstly with Schumann’s ballade-like setting of Heine’s verses “Die beiden Grenadiere”, telling the story of two French soldiers making their way home from the Napoleonic Wars, only to learn that their beloved Emperor had been imprisoned. Schumann effectively contrasts the over-the-top patriotism of the French soldier, complete with the “Marseilles” quotation, with the sombre, utterly downcast piano postlude, superbly “voiced” by Thomas Nikora. King’s beautiful and sonorous voice I thought captured the “heroic” aspect of the song to perfection, though still leaving room for future explorations of the conflicted and contrasting range of emotion from each of the men. However, in Beethoven’s setting of Goethe’s “Song of the Flea”, the singer’s characterisations ignited more readily, working hand-in-glove with Thomas Nikora’s impish, volatile rendering of the piano part, and instantly engaging our interest and delight – marvellous!

Samuel Berkahn returned to the platform, this time with his ‘cello, to perform for us the opening movement of Haydn’s sunny C-major ‘Cello Concerto. With Thomas Nikora leading the way, bringing the opening orchestral “tutti” excitingly to life on the piano, the ‘cellist took up the challenge right from his opening phrase, superbly “sprung” at first, then full-throated and song-like in the second subject group, the solo lines speaking, bubbling and glowing. Intonation was sometimes a bit hit-and-miss in the instrument’s higher registers, but the overall line of the performance remained, thanks to the player’s energy and “recovery instinct” keeping the musical fabric taut and even, and maintaining a sense of enjoyment and buoyancy.

Which brought us to the third premiere of the evening’s concert, Thomas Nikora’s Mass in E minor, a work which the composer told us was inspired by his performing with Cantoris another Mass, that by Schubert, in G Major (D.167), and which Nikora had promised himself he would complete for his fourth year as Cantoris’s music director (time flies!). He mentioned also the Latin Mass’s flexibility and versatility as a text for musical settings, allowing him so many creative possibilities and options. Along with the SATB choir, the composer scored the work for solo soprano, violin, cello and piano.

Beginning with the Kyrie, the composer’s promise that there will be “plenty of fugal stuff” was immediately suggested with the voices’ opening contrapuntal entries, giving way to the solo soprano (the angelic-voiced Barbara Paterson) without a break at the Christe eleison with soaring lyrical lines. The return of the Kyrie was announced by the tenors with clipped, fugal figures, the texture thereby considerably enlivened with staccato chatterings, urgent and insistent, but softened by lyrical utterances from Samuel Berkahn’s cello.

Without a break, the Gloria burst in, the sopranos doing some lovely stratospheric work, and the pianist, Liam Furey, moulding beautiful bell-like chords to accompany “Et in terra pax hominibus”, the section somewhat surprisingly finishing with an “Amen”, allowing the Laudamus te to start afresh – again very fugal, and leading to a fanfare-like “Glorificamus te” with contrapuntal lines encircling the music. Violinist Diana Muggleston sweetly added her instrument’s voice to that of the cello to prepare for the soprano’s contribution to Gratias agimus tibi, an angel’s pure and fervent exclamation of thanks. I did feel here that the music had too many “stop-starts”, and that the whole could have been given a stronger sense of  “through-line” via the occasional ear-catching transition, imagining, for instance, that the morphing into waltz-time at the Domine Deus from the Gratias would have a stunning effect!

A true-and-steady solo voice (that of Ruth Sharman’s) from the choir introduced each line of Qui tollis peccata mundi, the effect moving and empathetic – as was Barbara Paterson’s delivery of Quoniam, being joined as sweetly by the choir’s sopranos after the solo utterances. And, while not as toe-tappingly infectious as Rossini’s “Cum sancto spiritum” fugue from the latter’s Petite Messe sollenelle, Nikora’s setting of the same passage had plenty of spirit, with wreaths of garlanded “Amens” honouring the deity’s glory, and violin and ‘cello lines most satisfyingly adding their voices to the tumult.

The Credo opened urgently, “running” in a fugal sense, and serious and sombre in tone,  the instruments keeping the fugal spin going underneath the voices’ “Et in unum Dominum”, then movingly ritualise the central “Et incarnatus est” with chorale-like accompaniments to the voices’ focused fervour, the soprano further lyricising the line “Crucifixus estiam pro nobis” (He was crucified for us), until the instruments cranked up the running accompaniments to Et resurrexit with exciting, stamping staccato figures. Then, true to intent, the music “grew” a giant fugal structure from Et in spiritus sanctus, all voices woven into the fabric in fine style – a strong, sudden major-key “Amen” brought to an end this impressive musical declamation of faith.

But not the Mass as such, of course – whose next sequence turned convention on its head with a Sanctus set in what sounded like the rhythmic trajectory of a Habanera! It made for a treasurable  “Now that I have your attention” moment, flecked with grins of delight from all sides, especially at the sultry piano glissandi and the exotic touch of the tambourine, giving the words a kind of extra potency in their delivery.  The Benedictus took a rather more circumspect rhythmic character, more of a “floating” aspect generated by “humming” sequences from the choir and a wordless melody from the soprano flowering into something that had the feeling of a heartfelt “personal” faith. The return of the “Hosanna” re-established the feeling of ritual, wordless voice-resonatings and instrumental accompanyings reinforcing the message of glory.

Agnus Dei gave us lovely, floating lines, creating a kind of living, gently-walking mosaic of sounds, snow-capped by a heartfelt “Dona nobis pacem” from Barbara Paterson – which brought us to the fugal (as opposed to “frugal”) Amen, not unlike Handel’s “Messiah” Amen, the tenors’ vigorous vocalisings particularly engaging! – as well as this “focusedly fugal” aspect, the writing included expansive lyrical lines as well, voices and instruments relishing their vigorous and full-throated exchanges right to the work’s conclusion. An enthusiastic reception, partly for the Mass itself and its composer, and partly for the performers’ delivery of the whole concert, carried the evening through in a satisfyingly warm-hearted manner – such pleasure to be had from an evening’s music-making!