“Cello for Africa” at Porirua City a spectacular and moving multi-cultural collaborative event

The Sinfonia for Hope presents:
CELLO FOR AFRICA – a multi-institutional and multi-cultural collaboration
Director – Donald Maurice

Performing Individuals and Groups:
Te Kura Māori o Porirua (kapa haka and waiata)
Inbal Megiddo, Rolf Gjelsten, Jane Young (cellos) Stringendo (director: Donald Maurice)
Linkwood Guitar Duo (Jane Curry and Owen Moriarty)
Sam Manzana (Congo drum)
Virtuoso Strings (directors – Craig Utting and Elizabeth Sneyd)
Cellophonia (director – Inbal Meggido)
Amalia Hall (violin), Tinashe Chidanyika and Sarah Hoskyns (mbira)
Ruby Solly (taonga puoro), Hannah Neman (percussion)
Lyrica Choir, Kelburn Normal School (director – Nicola Holt)
Sinfonia for Hope  (conductor: Hans Huyssen)
Heleen du Plessis (‘cello)

Music by Antonio Vivaldi, Jack Body, Craig Utting, Anthony Ritchie, Hans Huyssen

Guest Speakers:
Dr.Taku Parai (Chairman, Kaumātua, Ngāti Toa)
Her Worship Anita Baker, Mayor of Porirua
Associate Professor Hon. Luamanuvao Dame Winnie Laban
Professor Sunny Collings, Dean and Head of Wellington Campus, University of Otago
Professor Donald Maurice, director of Sinfonia for Hope

Te Rauparaha Arena, Porirua City

Sunday, 24th November, 2019

“Cello for Africa” was, in the words of co-organisers Heleen du Plessis and Donald Maurice, an event designed “to bring people from different cultures together using music, and specifically, ‘cellos, to help create a platform for cultural interaction and human connection in support of causes in Africa”. The concert’s specific target was to raise funds for a school established in Nairobi five years ago, the Tamariki Education Centre, by New Zealander Denise Carnihan (who was present at the concert).

The event brought together four youth performance groups augmented by a goodly number of professional performers to perform, among other things, at least one world and one New Zealand performance premiere (not a Venn diagram in words – I meant TWO separate pieces!). New Zealand composer Anthony Ritchie contributed the world “first” with his piece “Kia Kaha Tamariki”, and South African composer Hans Huyssen the New Zealand premiere of his “Concerto for an African ‘Cellist”. There was a Vivaldi concerto for two ’cellos, a work for two guitars by Jack Body, and a piece for strings called “Goodnight Kiwi” by Craig Utting. And extending the diversity of the occasion were various haka and waiata performed by Te Kura Māori o Porirua Kapa Haka, a colourful sequence of Congo drumming by master percussionist Sam Manzanza, and a bracket of songs performed by Kelburn Normal School’s Lyrica Choir, directed by Nicola Holt.

We were welcomed at the outset by Dr Taku Parai, the Ngāti Toa Chairman and Kaumātua, accompanied by Ranei Parai and the splendid Te Kura Māori o Porirua Kapa Haka group. I was struck by the similarities in places between the sound of the Maori chant and some of the Gregorian chant I’d heard, with similar nuances and impulses in places, and underlined by the plangency of the young women’s tones – by contrast the haka passages were incisive and striking for different reasons! After the group had moved off to the side in the time-honoured manner, the Mayor of Porirua, Her Worship Anita Baker spoke to us, most impressively, drawing resonant parallels between Ntairobi in Kenya, and Porirua, here in New Zealand, and welcoming our support for the “Cello in Africa” venture. At this point I felt it would have been good for the event to have had a properly-appointed MC, merely to provide a kind of ongoing flow during the transitions between the numbers – the members of the Stringendo group simply “appeared” with the continuo ‘celllist, Jane Young, after whom came the two soloists for the next item, ‘cellists Inbal Megiddo and Rolf Gjelsten, together with conductor, Donald Maurice.

The two soloists began the work vigorously and adroitly, Megiddo taking the more assertive lead with Gjelsten seeming somewhat “laid back” of projection in reply, both in this way most effectively “terracing” the exchanges, while Jane Young’s continuo kept a watching brief over the exchanges. The tutti passages had great effect, with the extra weight of numbers producing a real “What does the crowd think?” kind of response in the sound’s impact – I’m certain the spontaneous applause at the first movement’s end would have underlined for the players our enjoyment. The slow movement featured the soloists and continuo only, the players again differentiating their lines via a fetching minor-key melody, with Megiddo’s sumptuous tones stimulating a thoughtful, more circumspect response from her companion. Some of the younger players weren’t expecting or had forgotten about a repeat in the music, as several moved to make a grand tutti entry at one point, but lowered their bows again when the music turned on its tracks and repeated a second-half section – very sweet! The younger players got their chance at the “true” beginning of the finale, playing the repeated theme as the soloists overlaid the  music with decorative passages, then intensifying the repetitions with a couple of modulations – all sounding very daring on their part, and garnering considerable applause at the end!

Next was a transcription for two guitars by Jack Body, made from recordings of the Madagascan “vahila”, a kind of “zither” made from a bamboo tube, and regarded by many as the country’s “national” musical instrument. A tumbling, rhythmically teasing piece called “Ramandriana”, it kept shifting its emphasis and thus varying its gait, the players, Jane Curry and Owen Moriarty, finding a wealth of variation of tone and timbre, which would have stemmed from the original instrument recording. (The duo should, I think, have been at least introduced to the audience as “The Linkwood Guitar Duo”, but, again, there was no “MC”.There were names and  information in the programme to be sure, but again, a welcoming voice would have, I think, made a more easeful difference.

We were delighted to welcome Sam Manzanza, the Congloese drummer, resident in New Zealand since the 1980s, where he’s been popularising traditional African music for a number of years with his AfroBeat Band – here he was performing solo with a single drum, and producing an amazing variety of sounds , accompanying his rhythmic patternings with various chants, and encouraging audience participation most successfully! Continuing on an African “wave”, we responded warmly to the next speaker, Associate Professor Hon. Luamanuvao Dame Winnie Laban’s congratulations to South Africa for winning the World Rugby Cup! Her acknowledgement of the work of the organisers of this evening’s concert also elicited an enthusiastic response, as did her confirmation of the Te Ata Festival Project for 2020.

Composer, and co-director of Virtuoso Strings, Craig Utting introduced his ensemble in preparation for the nest item, a version of TV NZ’s famous shutting-down-transmission piece, “Goodnight Kiwi”. Accompanied by the lowering of lights for the music’s beginning, the piece established an all-energies-spent feeling, the string figurations drowsy and  droopy at the phrase-ends, the fragments of one phrase answering another across the vistas created by the ensemble standing in a wide half-circle to perform. The music suddenly energised into angular waltz-like movement, the rhythms and themes lazily dovetailing, its bitter-sweet ambience underlined by a “wilting” kind of inclination, until finally a driving, toccatalike 7/4 rhythm awoke a voice singing the famous Hine e hine words, with heartfelt feeling – the singer beautifully maintained her line and steadiness of tone , right until darkness overtook the music and the players on the stage………

After an interval, and a welcome and brief address from the Dean and Head of Otago University’s Wellington Campus, Professor Sunny Collings, we were treated to composer Anthony Ritchie’s Kia Kaha Tamariki, a musical tribute to the Kenyan School whose founding five years ago in Nairobi has changed the lives of so many African children. The work (a world premiere) was performed here by Cellophonia (40+ cellists!) along with violinist Amalia Hall, cellist Inbal Megiddo, mbira players Tinashe Chidanyika and Sarah Hoskyns, taonga puoro player Ruby Solly, and percussionist Hannah Neman.

Ritchie’s work emphasised the ideas of exchange and accessibility of different musical sounds – a pity the orchestral “platform” was so far away from its audience, across the vistas of what was another performing-space, as it reduced the visceral effects of the more exotic instruments, such as a view of “how they were being played” (the Huyssen Concerto which concluded the evening had a similar kind of “removed” aspect to it – we were, indeed, in the same “space” as the performers, but arguably with too much “air” between us all!). Still, the sounds made an impact, and the conventional and exotic instruments created wholly unique worlds,  even if I felt the music sounded more “Caribbean” than African (ethnomusicologists may well apply to have my travel visas revoked upon reading that statement, though it’s just my (admittedly uninformed) opinion!).

Moments of “Elgarian-sounding” string-writing for the ‘cellos rubbed shoulders with more exotic rhythms and timbres as the non-string-players took up their instruments, the whole given an additional ambient context by Ruby Solly’s taonga puoro sounds. After a colourful sequence featuring the more exotic instruments alone, the drums intensified the rhythms and the cellos intoned an eminently singable/danceable melody, immediately suggesting a ready response in kind from listeners – the work was rounded off by a brief irruption of percussive impulse and gesture – altogether a direct and approachable tribute to a worthwhile cause.

There were hurryings and scurryings from certain people in preparation for the next item, the outcome seeming a little Houdini-esque as it turned out, with everybody’s attention focused on a completely different entrance to that through which the members of Lyrica (Kelburn Normal School Choir) and its director, Nicola Holt, finally appeared! – the group sang three songs bringing out poignancies and sweet colourings in the first two and plenty of rhythmic energy in the third, all accompanied on an electric piano most adroitly played by Nicole Chao, though I thought the second song, a lullaby could have just as effectively been performed voices-only. The choir recently took part in the Orpheus Choir of Wellington’s performance of Orff’s Carmina Burana, which I attended, and remember enjoying the children’s singing a great deal.

I wondered whether programming a fully-fledged three movement instrumental concerto at the end of a tumultuous evening was the best course, as the attrition rate among the audience was certainly noticeable at that stage, despite people’s best efforts – still, the work was meant to be symbolic of a fusion of voices and languages and cultures, and therefore judiciously placed at the concert’s climax. It represented a herculean effort of technique, emotion and crossover sensibility on the part of the solo cellist, Heleen du Plessis, who gave what sounded like a totally committed performance, from the “Partida”, or exploratory opening movement in which she enabled her instrument to “speak its language”, through the exchanges with other instruments over the second and third sections (the latter movement including a vocalised section from mbira-player Tinashe Chidanyika), and into the final Mapfachapfacha (in the Zezuru language, “a sudden arrival of many”), which sounded like a celebration of the coming together of diverse voices.

Composer Hans Huyssen’s use of non-standardised instruments (and the human voice) as constituent parts of such a formalised composition as a “concerto” has plenty of precedent in Western music, as witness, for example, the various instances of use of such things in the Mahler symphonies. And there were precedents of all kinds for the use of voices in such works as well, from Beethoven onwards, giving the words intoned by the orchestra players at the end of this work, referring to the music’s journey in search of a commonality amid the diversity, and its discovery within, their own unique resonances – the whole occasion generated so much warm feeling it was difficult to be analytical or judgemental regarding what we had heard! Its task, as far as I could discern from everybody’s response at the evening’s conclusion, was completed most successfully.