Voices of Women – A New Zealand sufferage celebration by Janet Jennings


Music by Janet Jennings
– a celebration of the successful struggle by women to gain the vote

Magnificat (soprano, violin, marimba)
A Daughter of Eve (soprano, piano)
Sit Down With Me Awhile (mezzo-soprano, piano)
Myself When Young (soprano, piano)
Voices of Women (voices, violin, marimba, piano, percussion)

Voices: Jayne Tankersley (soprano) Stephanie Acraman (soprano) Felicity Tompkins (soprano) Cartrin Johnsson (mezzo-soprano) Mere Boynton (voice)
Instrumentalists: Maia-Dean Martin (violin) Yoshiko Tsuruta (marimba) Katherine Austin (piano) Noelle Dannenbring (piano) Rachel Fuller (piano) Maria Mo (piano) Rachel Thomas (percussion)
Conductor (Voices of Women) Rachael Griffiths-Hughes

Produced by Wayne Laird for Atoll Records


Inspired by the 125th anniversary of the 1893 Electoral Act in New Zealand which gave women the right to vote in New Zealand, the first self-governing country in the world to enact such legislation, this CD collection of works by Janet Jennings was first performed as a single concert in Hamilton, at the Dr. John Gallagher Concert Chamber, University of Waikato, presumably by the same performers.

The opening work, Magnificat, brought to us ethereal visitations of sound from a solo violin, birdsong-like and wreathed in resonances from the marimba, and then joined by the more earthly but still exaltedly beautiful tones of soprano Jayne Tankersley, a human voice addressing heaven, and aspiring to a blessed state with her beautifully-floated omnes generationes. The long-breathed lines became animated at Fecit potentiam in bracio suo (He hath shewed strength with his arm) with voice and violin (the latter played by Maia Dean Martin) flexing their respective energies, after which the singing was increasingly visited with a kind of “possessed” aspect, a heightened presence, the considerations increasingly unworldly and spiritual. Added to this exultation were Yoshiko Tsuruta’s warm and energised marimba colourings at Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto, continuing right through  the “charged” radiance of the Amens.

Whether “A Daughter of Eve” was the programme’s or the composer’s name for the group of three Christina Rosetti songs, I’m not certain – but the set began with Rosetti’s heartfelt exploration of feelings associated with motherhood in “Crying, my little One”, the vocal line beautifully and heartfeltedly maintained by Stephanie Acraman, with sterling support from pianist Katherin Austin. The musicians then relished the relatively unbridled energies of the jolly, angular ditty “Winter: my Secret”, a charming series of pacts made by the poet with Nature and its different moods, the mercurial word-patternings setting enigmas against enigmas in an idiosyncratic way. The lamenting, claustrophobically coloured “Daughter of Eve suggested a loss of innocence wrought by circumstance, poor judgement and little care, day giving way to night, summer turning all too soon to winter, singer and pianist expressing the song’s despair with a deft but always sensitive touch.

New Zealand poet Ursula Bethell’s verses from a collection called “From a Garden in the Antipodes” expresed an intensely personal pride in creating something beautiful, a garden in which the poet “laboured hour on hour”. In a group called “Sit Down With Me Awhile” mezzo Catrin Johnsson and pianist Rachel Fuller delineated both anecdote and detail with a good deal of personality and character. The eponymous opening song outlined the hard work of creation and celebrated the ensuing rewards.  The process was continued with Warfare, a part war-chant and part dance, making a gardener’s peace with adversarial pests, while Ado railed against nature for outstripping the gardener’s best attentions with what the poet called “orgies”! I loved “Easter Bells”, the ambience generously resounding with vocal and instrumental ambiences – Jennings’ writing evoked a powerful sense of ritual and heartfelt faith in the process of change and renewal.

The title of the next group “Myself When Young” was not, in this case, anything to do with Edward Fitzgerald’s “Omar Khayyam” verses – but were settings of poems by Jean Alison Bartlett (1912-2006), written when the poet was 18 years old – soprano Felicity Tompkins’s brighter, more youthful, if less detailed tones energetically conveying the excitement of the poet’s work being published in “My poem was printed”, and with pianist Maria Mo’s evocative, flexible phrasings, savouring the sensuousness of a poem’s words in “Stop, Look, Listen” – beautiful evocations from singer and pianist, here – a pity the on-line text of this song “broke off” mid-way through, denying us the full impact of the words’ meanings……

Finally, there was “Voices of Women”, an extended “sprechgesang” kind of setting which articulated speeches and writings by various women from different parts of the world. Conductor Rachael Griffiths-Hughes powerfully launched the music’s Shostakovich-like opening, the ensemble’s playing (joined to splendid effect by pianist Noelle Dannenbring and percussionist Rachel Thomas) giving the scenario all the tension and “edge” needed throughout the lead-up to the anguished, repeated cries of “Is it right!”, powerfully underlining the spoken words of the first of these women, Kate Sheppard. Unfortunately, the production didn’t signify more clearly which performer was singing and speaking at any one time during the work – but after the speaker’s eloquently-delivered Kate Sheppard quote came a stirring setting of a poem by American Charlotte Perkins Gilman, from 1911 (predating American women suffrage by nine years!), the unnamed singer brilliantly and sonorously articulating the text, particularly telling at the words “That not a woman’s child – nor her own body – is her own”.

The opening music returned to herald Kate Sheppard’s announcement (a different singer) of the passing of the suffrage legislation – I thought the newsreel-like progressions of comments and events had a direct sweep and energy which made for effectively powerful and theatrical listening, the instrumental-only sequence driving the times forward to the present day and the voice of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, “speaking from Parliament” – spoken at first, rather than sung, paying homage to Kate Shepherd and Margaret Sievwright, and containing the telling words “we stand on the shoulders of giants, and they stood on the shoulders of mothers…” Fittingly, the work ended with a fully throated paean of exultant praise and celebration from the ensembled voices, and suitably sonorous underpinning by the instrumental forces – a splendidly-voiced triumph of reason and justice. Janet Jennings’ powerful work has here given ample tongue to the fruition, then and now, of that resounding triumph.


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