Orpheus Choir’s first ‘on their own’ concert in 2020 a Gloria triumph

Orpheus Choir of Wellington

Director: Brent Stewart
Barbara Paterson – soprano, Ruth Armishaw – mezzo
Nicholas Sutcliffe – organ
Instrumental ensemble (Olya Curtis – violin, Karen Batten – flute, Dominic Groom – horn, Toby Pringle – trumpet, Peter Maunder – trombone, Jeremy Fitzsimons – timpani, Thomas Nikora – piano)

Vivaldi: Gloria (RV 589)
Poulenc: Gloria. “reminiscent of a fresco by Bozzoli”
Michael McGlynn: Jerusalem
olst: In the Bleak Midwinter, arr. Ola Gjeilo (poem by Christina Rosetti)
Rutter: Star Carol
Ēriks Ešenvalds: Stars (poem by Sara Teasdale; tuned wine glasses pitched in tonal clusters, painting the picture of a sparkling, starry night sky)
Handel: ‘Worthy in the Lamb’ and the ‘Amen’ from Messiah 

Wellington Cathedral of Saint Paul

Saturday 14 November, 7:30 pm

The introduction to the programme by the chairperson of the Choir, Frances Manwaring, remarks that this was the choir’s first ‘self-presented’ concert in 2020 – the only other public appearance was with Orchestra Wellington’s 3 October concert in Rachmaninov’s The Bells and Fauré’s Requiem.

And I might as well use her background notes to refer to the task of preparing for the concert under review. “Thanks to the tech-savvyness and innovative thinking of our Music Director Brent Stewart, we barely missed a beat. Rehearsals moved on line and choir members logged in from their living rooms or bedrooms. Physical warm-ups were attempted in unusual places and members of the choir displayed skill and flair as Brent found ways to showcase their talents.”

The delay in writing this review has induced me to modify certain earlier words about aspects of the performance, such as comments about the sound of the electronic organ, and the absence of orchestral parts that are somewhat intrinsic to the full sound of both Vivaldi’s and Poulenc’s Glorias.

Vivaldi’s Gloria
It all became unimportant as soon as the choir launched into Vivaldi’s choral masterpiece with the Gloria in excelsis Deo, making such mighty impact. Sitting fairly close, even the cathedral’s rather unmanageable acoustic didn’t interfere too much.

Each of the twelve sections might average about three minutes and they vary sharply in spirit and religious significance, but the genius of the music remained in full command of choir and audience for the full half hour. For example, the calm (the programme notes ‘introspective’ is a good word) second movement, ‘Et in terra pax’, revealed a lovely balance between men, occupying the centre of each of the half dozen rows of singers, and the twice as many women. But they were not at all unbalanced in their combined impact.

Soloists appeared in the third movement, ‘Laudamus Te’, Barbara Paterson and Ruth Armishaw, both making very striking impacts, contrasting comfortably. Part 6, ‘Domine Deus’ is for soprano, delightful, and a fairly limited orchestra, which again, one missed. Then followed mezzo Armishaw’s solo, singing the meditative ‘Domine Deus, Agnus dei’, punctuated by choir and organ; and she sang beautifully without choir in the tenth movement, ‘Qui sedes ad dexterum’.

Poulenc’s Gloria
Instead of an organ in the role of Poulenc’s orchestra, a small ensemble (eight players including the organ again) appeared after the interval to accompany his ‘Gloria’, which was a late product of his adoption, “in his fashion”, of religion in 1936, following the awful death in a car crash of a fellow composer and close friend.

In the opening phase the ensemble’s sound was somewhat heavy, the timpani particularly so and the three brass instruments were pretty audible, but that’s not too alien to Poulenc’s orchestral score. As for the singers, first impressions were of a soprano section that was strong, perhaps a little outweighing the rest. But the general impact of their performance was one of vigour and conviction.

In the ‘Laudamus Te’ the choir and the brass instruments that opened, in darting staccato rhythms, were well balanced from the beginning, and a quiet organ contributed nicely.

Soprano soloist Paterson emerged in the third section, ‘Domine Deus’, her part being to create a sense of peace, which was also the message the choir. The following ‘Dominus Fili unigente’ is a more lively movement, jocular and quite short. ‘Domine Deus, Agnus Dei’ is the protracted fifth movement, with Paterson taking lengthy solo episodes that could have been heard as mysterious rather than peaceful.

The sixth and last movement, ‘Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris’ opened with slow recitative statements from the sopranos singing without accompaniment, the orchestra joined with a motif that was just a little different from the opening of the ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo’. The choir and the men followed, singing in a prosaic character, often emphatically untuneful. But Paterson didn’t enter till about halfway through the last movement, casting some light but mostly ambivalence on the solo soprano’s message. The basic theme was taken up for the ‘Amen’ at the end which hardly offers a particularly persuasive feeling of hope for mankind, in spite of positive episodes like the ‘Laudamus Te’.

The choir was most successful in handling the frequent changes of tone and spirit, and the ensemble provided as good a substitute for a full orchestra as was reasonable to expect.

Concert fillers
The concert filled the time that a concert could normally be expected to last, with five varied and quite fascinating pieces.

First, a duet by Irish composer Michael McGlynn, Jerusalem, pursuing a variety of harmonies created an authentic impression through the distribution of the female singers around the sides of the cathedral. Then a song by Holst, In the Bleak Midwinter, arranged by Ola Gjeilo for solo voice with the choir entering later. The solo part was sung most attractively by the young soprano Kitty Sneyd-Utting.

John Rutter’s Star Carol, a lively and attractive Christmas song, with men’s and women’s voices taking distinct sections between substantial episodes by the full choir.

Another unfamiliar name was that of Ēriks Ešenvalds, Latvian (born in 1977); look at his interesting biography on the Internet. (Excuse me: I spent a fascinating week in Riga in 1999, catching four opera performances, and lovely ‘Art Nouveau’ architecture, a bit before Ešenvalds got started).

His Stars, to a poem by Sara Teasdale, involved the playing of tuned wine glasses, not strictly a ‘glass harp’, that were played by a number of the women in the front row, “painting the picture of a sparkling, starry night sky”. My notes describe it as evocative and rather moving; I think some men stroked the glasses too. The star was projected on the wall of the Sanctuary.

Finally, another gesture towards Christmas was ‘Worthy is the Lamb’ and the ‘Amen’, with which Messiah ends: a bit unsynchronised at the start, but then it took off, with gusto till the calm lead-in to the Amen chorus which was full of energy.

If these fillers were a bit like that, they were individually worth singing and being heard, and brought a fine concert, splendidly inspired and led by Brent Stewart, to a very successful end.

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