Nota Bene Choir – an amalgam of mystery and illumination at St. Mary of the Angels

Nota Bene presents;
WONDER AND LIGHT  (How to get ahead of yourself while the light still shines)

Nota Bene Choir / Heather Easting (organ)
Shawn Michael Condon (music director)

BENJAMIN BRITTEN – Rejoice in the Lamb  (Festival Cantata)
words by Christopher Smart
Jenny Gould (soprano), Viriginia Earle (alto), Patrick Geddes (tenor) Peter Barber (bass)
Nota Bene Choir
Heather Easting (organ)

Nota Bene Choir
Heather Easting (organ)

JOONAS KOKKONEN  – Lux Aeterna  (Organ Solo)
Heather Easting (organ)

ERIC WHITACRE – Lux Aurumque (translated by Edward Esch)
Nota Bene Choir

RIHARDS DUBRA – Stetit Angelus
Nota Bene Choir

GRAHAM PARSONS  (words by Jenny Bornholdt)
Instructions For How to Get Ahead of Yourself While the Light Still Shines
Nota Bene Choir


St Mary of the Angels Church,
Boulcott St., Wellington

Sunday, 20th September, 2020

Surely the Church of St.Mary of the Angels in Wellington’s Boulcott St. is one of the city’s most spectacularly beautiful places in which one can make music, in addition to its acoustics being particularly suited to certain kinds of music for the human voice. In terms of sheer amplitude of sound the venue is surpassed by Wellington’s Cathedral of St.Paul, but in some music it’s at the expense of clarity at the larger church – here one seems to get the best of both worlds, along with an impressive visual manifestation of aspects of divine worship, irrespective of one’s own spiritual beliefs!

Nota Bene’s “Wonder and Light” programme, under the direction of guest conductor Shawn Michel Condon (music director of the Bach Choir of Wellington), seemed tailor-made for such an environment, being “supported” at almost every juncture of the presentation, the exceptions being items where the English-language texts needed more ambient clarity for their particular points to be conveyed “meaning-wise”. The concert organisers went as far as providing a screen at the front on which were projected Latin texts and translations where applicable, but it was the English-text items that could have done with “help” in this area – particularly those of the works by Britten and Graham Parsons. Britten’s “Rejoice in the Lamb” is sufficiently well-known for the idiosyncratic texts of poet Christopher Smart to be gleaned more-or-less satisfactorily without the help of surtitiles, but I was at a loss to make sense of a good deal of poet Jenny Bornholdt’s text for the Graham Parsons work, despite my deriving a good deal of pleasure from its title alone!

This caveat apart, I derived a good deal of pleasure from the programme, being particularly “taken” by the power and beauty of Morton Lauridsen’s “Lux Aeterna” which occupied most of the first half. Performed entirely in the choir-loft at the church’s rear, the sounds seemed to indeed come from heaven, encouraging one to suspend one’s “mortal coil” for the duration and abandon one’s senses to the music’s “soaring” quality and be suitably transported by it all – in fact, I didn’t even notice the aforementioned screen with its projected Latin words and translations until the concert’s opening item, English composer Graham Keitch’s brief but beautiful “O lux beatissima” , had nearly run its course!

Keitch’s work straightaway set the ambient tone for the concert, the opening bright and welcoming, and building to a glorious expansion of sound at the climax, Heather Easting’s brilliant organ-playing adding to the panoply of sound – I was reminded of comedian Michael Flanders’ explanation concerning his and pianist Donald Swann’s very “assertive” opening number in the pair’s “At the Drop of A Hat” revue presentation, Flanders drolly remarking that the song “helps us get the pitch of the hall!”. Morton Lauridsen’s more extended “Lux  Aeterna” which followed began less assertively with a quiet organ solo, the figurations gradually opening up the vistas for the voices, a sound characterised by resonance and warmth, bringing comfort via the gentle tones of the “Requiem”, and then resounding splendidly for “Exaudi Orationam Meam” (Hear my prayer), before coming back to earth.

The “Miserere” of the next section alternated some beautifully “floated” phrases in tandem with the organ, enlivening the discourse with the occasional angular note or phrase. The “O nata lux” (O born of light) section began with the organ, then some tender harmonies from the choir, rising in fervour at “Dignare clemens supplicum”, and even more so at “Nos membra confer effici” (We may become part). Joyous, celebratory strains filled the ambiences with “Veni Sanctus Spiritus”, a sequence which featured the voices repeatedly ascending, flinging their voices aloft in exultation. The “Agnus Dei” brought a more pensive mood became more pensive,  with each of the three supplications adding to the intensities of the previous one, the third and last adding the word “sempiternam’ to the phrase, which prompted some extended upward-thrusting expressions of redemptive desire. With the return to the words of the opening, “Requiem aeternam”, and “Lux Aeterna” the women’s voices soared over the men’s, leading to the piece’s final fervent “Alleluias”, introduced by the organ, but brought to fruition by the choir in splendid fashion, after which a quiet “Amen” sequence brought the music to a close.

Benjamin Britten’s piquantly delightful cantata “Rejoice in the Lamb” began the concert’s second half, the singers remaining in the choir loft for the work’s performance, which surprised me, as I thought the texts, written by sixteenth-century poet Christopher Smart, would require the singers to be closer to their audience for the words to properly “tell”. As it turned out, the diction and projection of all the singers, both solo and in ensemble, enabled more of the text to be heard and understood than I expected it would, apart from the most rapidly-delivered passages. Still, I thought it a pity that the words weren’t projected on the screen as were those of the Lauridsen “Lux Aeterna”.

The lovely opening, like a day’s awakening, was a kind of morning prayer, intoned by the men’s voices and accompanied with adroit timing and great whimsicality on the part of organist, Heather Easting. And while the more forthright choral passage “Let Nimrod the Mighty Hunter” was noted more for its thrust and weight than its clarity, the music’s dancing energies made a joyful, almost abandoned impression – and the succeeding “Alleluias” were so very beautiful and moving. The first vocal solo, that depicting the poet’s cat, Jeffrey, was delivered with beautiful vocal tones by soprano Jenny Gould and great dancing charm from the organ, even though the words from a distance were well-nigh unintelligible. Just as charming in a more forthright manner was the Mouse, sung by Virginia Earle with some spirit, the creature’s “personal valour” defying the cat’s murderous intentions! A tenor solo elucidated the “great blessings” of flowers, quiet and dignified, but true toned, if showing a little strain in places; and supported sonorously by the organ’s ability to “colour” its notes.

Words and music took a sudden detour into darkness for the next section, the poet’s equating his sufferings with those of his “Saviour”, and describing his own fears and terrors, the choir and organist relishing the composer’s use of sharp, angular contrasts and chiaroscuro-like settings of light against darkness. The mood gradually lightene as the last soloist, bass Peter Barber proclaimed God in all things, putting across the words with increasing elan and conviction, and succeeding in rousing voices and organ to a dancing celebration of God’s creation in rhyme and rhythm. At this point the choir, by way of a series of hushed, absolutely delicious chordings, registered that, the day being almost done, serenity and contentment were at hand – the Alleluias of the work’s first part returned, bringing with them a lump-in-the-throat-inducing feeling of empathy with and for the poet, a disturbed but intermittently happy soul.

An organ solo by Joons Kokkonen, almost epilogue-like in relation to the Britten work, built like a great “flowering” from its muted beginnings, strangely echoing the cries of “Silly fellow!” in the Britten, but with each step-like sequence, moving to a higher realm of radiance, the bass notes near the end taking on an almost Fafner-like aspect of menace and magnificence! The climax almost combatatively “clustered” the notes before the music eased into a resolution, withdrawing to a distant, muted standpoint of serene stasis – beautiful!

From the Kokkonen work’s relative severity we were taken to what appeared from its title to be a form of profound drollery, in the form of a work by Palmerston North composer Graham Parsons, “Instructions for How to Get Ahead of Yourself While the Light Still Shines”, the words by poet Jenny Bornholdt, many of which, alas, the ample acoustic annoyingly blurred (with no help forthcoming from the screen). Tracking down the poem’s words later made me regret all the more that the performance couldn’t under such circumstances elucidate them more clearly – all delightfully childlike and sagacious at one and the same time! It seemed unfair that the Latin texts of the evening’s performances were invariably supported by “the word added to flesh”, whereas the English-text works were left to keep themselves afloat as best they could without any such help…..thus it was that the Eric Whitacre work “Lux Aurumque” which followed had the words and their translations on display, readily conveying a directness of focus for the piece in a certain way, aside from the mere visceral effect on the listener of voices beautifully teasing out the sound textures, creating luminous abstractions that could be relished as such on their own.

The remainder of the programme was “lighter” fare, though every item got the sort of treatment whose sounds brought out the essential character of the music – a traditional Finnish song, “Kaipaava”, for example (one comparing the beloved to fine grass, while the “self” remains as “lowly as the earth”) had the altos beginning with the song’s minor-key melody beneath a descant from the sopranos, the men joining in the third verse, and a soprano solo adding to the colour and folksiness of the presentation. Rihards Dubra’s work “Stetit Angelus” (An angel stood near the sanctuary of the Temple) was actually more substantial than its companions, opening with a remarkably vibrant oscillating chord from the women, over the top of the men’s deeper tones, the effect  one of ecstatic swaying figures – the whole was bound together in a hymn-like chant, the women holding a single line and the men interlacing its strands – a magical evocation. “Underneath the Stars” was a song by Kate Rusby, for SATB featuring a soprano solo with an echoed accompaniment, while the concert’s final item was “Spells of Herrick” by Andrew Steffens, accompanied on the piano by Heather Easting, the first part an “Incantation”, beautifully harmonised by men’s voices at the beginning (the words a mystery!), and the second, more assertive section “Charms” expressed an effect suggested by the eponymous title!

Altogether a feast for the senses, a concert well-named in its amalgam of mystery and illumination.

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