Supertonic conjures up arcadian realms for an evocatively-sung “Rest” presentation

Supertonic Choir presents:
REST: – Faure’s Requiem and Songs of Remembrance

Supertonic Choir
Music Director Isaac Stone
Soprano Nicola Holt, Baritone William McElwee,
Organist Michael Fletcher

Music by Herbert Howells, Elizabeth Alexander, John Taverner, Kurt Bestor, U2 (arr. Bob Chilcott), Gabriel Faure

Cathedral of St Paul, Molesworth St. Wellington

Saturday 19 June 2021

It was a drear Wellington night. A cold drizzle was falling. I expected to see a tiny dedicated audience huddling in the cavernous cathedral. I was wrong.

The church was a good two-thirds full, and the enthusiastic audience seemed pretty familiar with Supertonic. The choir was founded in 2014, and by my estimation is one of the youngest choirs in Wellington, as well as one of the larger choirs, with 64 singers. The average age seems to be under 30. The sound they make is zingy with youth.

The Music Director, Isaac Stone, is a well trained singer and choir director with a deep background in barbershop and consequently he has an exquisite sense of pitch. For a large choir, Supertonic is gloriously in tune; precise and clean. Isaac Stone is a confident but not ostentatious conductor. He gets exactly what he wants, because all eyes are on him.

The programme was built around the Fauré Requiem and comprised six smaller a capella elegiac works, with the Fauré placed second to last. (More of this later.)

The concert opened with a beautiful and well known work by the English composer Herbert Howells, ‘Take him, earth, for cherishing’. Written in memory of John F. Kennedy, it has the fresh lyrical beauty typical of Howells. The text is from a poem by a fourth-century poet, translated by Helen Waddell, beginning:

Take him, earth, for cherishing,
to thy tender breast receive him.
Body of a man I bring thee,
noble even in its ruin.

All of that is sung by the three lower parts, piano, in a beautiful legato, until the soprano entry on the second page. The soprano sound had a passionate quality over more complex rhythms in the lower parts. The divisi sopranos produced a beautiful bell-like sound in the con anima section. The semi-chorus a little later sounded a tad untidy, as though the dotted rhythms were under-rehearsed; but the next divisi section was confident and together.

It is the sound of Supertonic that is so delightful: the freshness of youth plus the smoothness that is achieved with 60 singers. This was evident in the next work, ‘Y Comienzo a Bailar’, by Elizabeth Alexander, with piano accompaniment. The Spanish text is a soliloquoy of a woman preparing for La Dia de los Muertos, and includes a ravishing soprano solo, sung by Karishma Thanawala, one of the sopranos, with the choir sotto voce underneath.

Tavener’s ‘Song for Athene’ is also well known. Typical Tavener, using minimal material, and requiring utterly precise tuning over a bass drone. The work was most famously performed for the funeral of Princess Diana, sung as her coffin was carried out. Supertonic sang it splendidly; the dissonances were not labored, and the sustained singing built steadily to the crescendo, an outpouring of grief.

This was followed by a work called ‘Prayer of the Children’ by Kurt Bestor, an American composer of new age music and film scores. This is his best-known work, written in response to ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, and intended to be used to commemorate tragedies involving children. The words are banal, and the music not to my taste, but the choir sang it as though such thoughts had not occurred to them.

Yet the next work, MLK by the Irish band U2, arranged by Bob Chilcott (a former King’s College chorister), was the exact opposite: simple, direct, moving. It opens with a tenor solo (sung by Joel Miller, one of the tenors) with the choir backing him, and takes on a gospel feel, with a terrific low bass part. Coming after a lot of truly excellent singing, it was the stand-out piece of the first half of the concert.

The stage was reset during a short interval, with five string players and two soloists, soprano Nicola Holt and baritone William McElwee. The Cathedral organ is currently out of commission, so Michael Fletcher played the digital organ, which proved to be a mixed blessing (though the sight lines were good). The organ sound was too dominant in the first two movements, and overpowered the first baritone solo (‘Hostias’). But the choir! Such beautiful singing, with purity of tone and precise intonation.

The Sanctus was almost ruined before it began with an unscheduled ugly blurt of sound from the organ, but the choir’s entry was perfect. The entry of the men at the Hosanna was exciting, but the organ couldn’t match the choir’s volume at the first diminuendo and spoiled the effect.

Soprano Nicola Holt had to do only one thing, to sing the Pie Jesu, and she did it beautifully. She gave it the glorious full Aled Jones treatment and filled the cathedral.

The Agnus Dei had some splendidly sensitive accompaniment from the strings, but too much organ volume both there and in the Lux Aeterna. William McElwee’s Libera Me was assured and sat well in his voice. The organ’s Last Trump was almost too much, but the choir’s crescendo was magnificent, full and urgent. The women’s tone in the In Paradisum was light and ethereal, exactly as required –but once again the organ was just too dominant.

All in all, a gorgeous performance of a very well known and much loved work from choir and soloists with lovely string accompaniment.

And then… one last work. In this case it was an arrangement of a traditional South African song, and it is a pleasing work, well sung. But not well placed after the Fauré, which is after all a sublime piece of choral writing, and next to the plainchant Missa Pro Defunctis, the most perfect setting of the Requiem Mass text.

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