Orpheus Choir’s Concert title “I Was Glad” eponymously shared by audience response at Wellington’s Cathedral of St.Paul

Orpheus Choir of Wellington presents

SARAH HOPKINS – Past Life Melodies
ERIC WHITACRE – Lux Arumque / Little Birds
CHRIS ARTLEY – I Will Lift up Mine Eyes

Barbara Paterson (soprano), Margaret Medlyn (mezzo-soprano)
Wade Kernot (bass), Martin Setchell (organ)
Karen Batten (flute), Merran Cooke (oboe)
Dominic Groom (horn), Peter Maunder (trombone)
Jeremy Fitzsimons (percussion), Thomas Nikora (piano)
Stephen Mosa’ati, Matthew Stein (trumpets)

Orpheus Choir, Wellington

Brent Stewart (conductor)

Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul,

Saturday, 7th August, 2021

We were, I think, all imbued with gladness at Wellington’s Cathedral of St.Paul on Saturday evening at the splendours of the music-making by the Orpheus Choir in partnership with the instrumentalists throughout most of the concert and with the vocal soloists in the concluding  Szymanowski work, the whole directed to lustrous effect by conductor Brent Stewart.

It was an occasion whose intensities and excitements seemed, throughout the evening, to escalate with each item’s performance the content, order and trajectory of the distinctly different works beautifully leading our ears from one unique sound-experience to the other. The musicians’ concentrated and focused efforts helped bring out the essential resonant “character” of each piece as separate aspects of what felt like a single journey, which was, I think one of the concert’s great strengths.

It would have been tempting to have resplendently closed the concert’s first half with its eponymous title-piece, Hubert Parry’s I Was Glad – however I felt it worked brilliantly as a sound-spectacle nearer the evening’s beginning, placed immediately after the extraordinary “opening up” of the space’s resonances by the very first item on the programme, Sarah Hopkins’ Past Life Melodies which in a sense acclimatised us to the cathedral’s enormous potential for sustenance of tones and textures, allowing us to “feel” the spaces all around us.

Hopkins, a New Zealander by birth, has lived and worked in Australia for most of her life – her work performed this evening illustrated her interest in a vocal technique known as “harmonic overtone” singing derived from ancient Mongolian and Tibetan practices. Written in 1991, Past Life Melodies takes its name from the composer’s idea of accessing sounds  from her “other lives” through harmonics and overtones wrought from her own vocal production and combining these effects with other ethnic-based techniques to produce something unique and unworldly. It’s been her most successful choral work to date, having been taken up by vocal ensembles worldwide. The sounds reminded me of a “singing in tongues” phenomenon which I once heard at a Charismatic Christian presentation, strongly ritualistic in atmosphere and wholly mesmerising to the sensibilities. A feature of this performance by Orpheus was the use of ambient lighting, which intensified and dimmed with the piece’s overall shape, to telling effect.

From these “sounds of the earth” we were then made privy to a different kind of ritual belonging to another time and place – Sir Hubert Parry’s I Was Glad, a performance which sounded utterly “right” from the first note, its freshness and energy giving the piece a “newly-minted” quality, the instrumental opening magisterially realised by organ, brass and timpani and the voices full-throatedly delivering the opening words.  The sopranos’ ecstatically beautiful “Our feet shall stand in their gates” led the way forwards for the other voices, the music expressing the “unity in itself” of the text before allowing the brasses their heads in fanfares and tumultuous jubilations! The cathedral’s acoustics in such places made nonsense of the choir’s otherwise superb diction, but what a splendid sound it all gave forth!

There was sweetness, too, in “O, pray for the peace of Jerusalem”, before the brasses heralded a new jubilation at “Peace be within thy walls!” – and there was certainly “ample plenteousness” of ceremonial tones within these same walls as the music reached its vociferous end.  A certain clearing of the air came with James MacMillan’s beautiful A New Song, another Psalm setting, this one from Psalm 96,”Sing unto the Lord a new song”,  one beginning with plainsong-like lines from the sopranos, the organ adding melismatic-like flourishes which brought other voice-lines into the music’s flow, the building’s acoustic allowing the vocal lines to resonate magically, while still preserving the folk-like “turns” delivered by each strand. The men’s voices took up the plainsong melody, accompanied by the deep tones of the organ, which again sounded its windblown melismas as the rest of the choir repeated the section, complete with the “folk-turns” – dark, massive organ notes reintroduced the plainsong, canonic between women’s and men’s voices, leaving the organ to finish the piece, simply but effectively, with a breath-catching crescendo.

Eric Whitacre’s music has made its mark on the contemporary choral scene with its sure-fire shimmering choral clusters and baroque-like recyclings of material for every which purpose – whether his music has the kind of substance that will last is anybody’s guess. His Lux Arumque has achieved cyber-fame with a performance by a “virtual choir”, a tour-de-force synchronisation of voices from all over the world for one single performance, winning fame and garnering scepticism, depending on which commentator one reads  (one writer had it both ways, describing the music as “soupily addictive”!). Orpheus Choir’s performance of the work had it all, the finely-tuned clustered harmonies, the repeated “breathing” effects, and the sostenuto lines gliding over the oscillations – it’s hard not to capitulate to such expertly-wrought beauty and fluency. And the other Whitacre work on the programme, Little Birds, was great fun, complete with piano swirlings, vocal whistlings, and an irruption of birds’ wings at a pre-arranged signal, the choir members suddenly brandishing pieces of paper in a flamingo-like show of flight’s ecstasy!

If not quite a hat-trick, the concert achieved a “Psalm triple” with New Zealand-based Chris Artley’s setting of “I will lift up mine eyes” from Psalm 121, a work written for Auckland’s Kings College Chapel Choir in 2012. Women’s voices intoned a lovely melodic line, repeated by the men, the  beauties at “Shall neither slumber nor sleep” contrasting with an upsurge of tones at” at “The Lord Himself is thy keeper”, the trumpet joining in with the organ to heart-stirring effect, reaching magnificence firstly with the arched “Glory Be” sections, and a stirring return to a stratospheric “Amen” at the conclusion, setting the Cathedral’s precincts resounding with joy.

During the interval I was privileged to make the acquaintance of two audience companions, both of them ex-Orpheus Choir members, and more than ready to enthuse about what we all had heard thus far, as well as answer my queries concerning previous concerts they had both taken part in – though I had never been a choir member I had attended a number of these concert occasions, so our discussion brought back many resounding memories! I was told by one of these women that she was ninety-four, to which I expressed amazement, and a fervent wish that I myself might look forward to a ninety-fourth year sitting somewhere in a concert-hall with my music-appreciation faculties in as superb a condition as both hers and her companion’s obviously were!

So we came to what was for me the evening’s piece de resistance – though I must admit that, thanks in part to the musicians’ committed and finely-judged first-half performances, I was already thoroughly enjoying the concert, more, in fact than I had anticipated. Obviously the choir’s music director Brent Stewart had wisely chosen the repertoire in accordance with the Cathedral’s wondrous-slash-notorious five-second reverberation time, and the Stabat Mater of Polish composer Karol Szymanowski proved just as suited for performance in such a space as anything we had heard thus far.

Szymanowski’s music has its champions, but has still to make the “breakthrough” to gain acceptance in the average concertgoer’s consciousness. This work (especially so through this astounding performance) would have made the composer many new friends by the time the last of its heartfelt utterances had been expertly-sounded by the soloists, choir and ensemble together under their conductor’s inspired direction. The music began with gentle wind lines accompanied by the organ, leading up to the soprano’s entry, describing the grief of Mary, Christ’s mother, at her son’s crucifixion, Szymanowski  dividing the famous thirteenth-century poem depicting the mother’s vigil into six separate movements.

Soprano Barbara Paterson’s finely-honed delivery and complete absorption in the feeling expressed by the Polish text held us in thrall throughout (“Mother, bowed with dreadful grief…”) supported by haunting rejoiners from the choir, and beautiful, sensitive work from the instrumentalists. Soprano and oboe together near the end made such exquisitely heart-rending moments of the concluding “She who saw with grief the unending anguish of her Son”. By contrast, the deep blackness of bass Wade Kernot’s arresting tones plunged our sensibilities into the second part’s grim darkness, complete with throbbing percussion and bass ostinato, the voice laden and sepulchral in feeling, (“…thus beholding Christ’s dear mother in woe unlike any other woe…”) the choir rising from out of the dark agitations, pleading and beseeching, conductor Brent Stewart achieving an overwhelming effect with his soloist, brass and percussion at “When he gave up his spirit”.

The third part (“Tender Mother, sweet fountain of love”) featured mezzo-soprano Margaret Medlyn in fine, focused voice, and blending beautifully with the soprano, unfailingly supported by the winds and brass, and encompassing the great outburst (“Hatred, mockery and scorn”) towards the end with such palpable feeling, both voices true of tone and finely-drawn. How angelic were the women’s voices of the choir at the beginning of the fourth part, tenderly characterising Mary’s vigil at the foot of the Cross (“Under your care, weeping, watching….”), and with the rest of the choir enabling a gorgeous texture of sound at “May I live and mourn for his sake…”, repeated by the soprano with some beautifully-floated high notes, one extended phrase in particular to die for! Paterson was then joined by Medlyn and the choir to conclude their solicitations.

A stern, black-browed accompaniment greeted Wade Kernot’s apocalyptic utterances (“Immaculate Maid, most excellent!…”), the choir and instrumental ensemble responding with urgently rhythmic, almost agitated sotto-voce reactions. The exchanges were repeated, but a third time the bass refused to be put off, and, encouraged by the instruments towards heartfelt declamation, was joined by the choir for a powerfully-delivered “Virgin, let me be protected, when I am called in my turn!” Following these full-blooded beseechments came an opening melody for the work’s final section that the composer described as ”the most beautiful melody I have ever managed to write”, here delivered most movingly by Paterson, again negotiating her high notes with ethereal purity, the choir echoing her beautiful line, and Medlyn with her, steady and pleading at “May He who died here be my friend so that He may pardon me!”.  Kernot’s bass joined in, partnered by the choir and supported by a horn, repeating, along with soprano and mezzo “Grant to my soul all the joys of Paradise” a phrase whose variants and impulses. underpinned by resonant winds and brass, and reiterated at the work’s very end stayed in the silences that followed the last lingering notes.  Exquisite!

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