Dolce e misterioso

Nota Bene at the Hilma af Klint Exhibition
Wellington City Gallery

Saturday 18 December, 11.30 am and 12.15 pm

The City Gallery invited Nota Bene to perform a short programme (about 20 minutes
of a capella music) to accompany their exhibition of the Swedish mystical painter,
Hilma af Klint, in the upper gallery of the exhibition. The original idea was that the
concert would provide agreeable background music: a sympathetic soundscape in
which to view the works.

But conductor Shawn Condon put together a programme of works for women’s
voices by Swedish, Estonian, Finnish, and American composers that cleverly
complemented the paintings. The works were ten large abstract paintings that
represented the transition from childhood and youth to maturity and the end of life.
The result was a programme of unfamiliar music that added another dimension to
the paintings. The concert was delivered twice, at 11.30 am and 12.15 pm, to
attentive audiences of about 100, mostly seated on folding chairs. The Nota Bene
women wore black and were barefoot, which added a sacerdotal quality.

The first work was Pärt Uusberg’s Muusika, which asks, ‘Where does the music
come from?’ This very beautiful piece was set for SSAA, is strophic and rhythmically
complex (the first eight bars move from 3/8 to 3/4, 7/8, 4/4, 6/8, 4/4 and back to 3/8),
yet harmonically simple. The sensibility and the Estonian text were ideally suited to
af Klint’s work: ‘Somewhere the original harmony must exist/ hidden somewhere in
the vast wilds/ in the vast reaches of swirling galaxies/ in sunshine’. The effect
created was a kind of child-like simplicity and wonder.

Next was a more complex setting of a text by Hildegard of Bingen, ‘O frondens virga’
(‘O verdant branch’), one of Hildegard’s meditations on the Virgin Mary, arranged by
the US composer Drew Collins. The original text came from a psalm antiphon
(D155r), set in plainchant; that is, it was written as a single melodic line for unison
women’s voices. Collins has arranged it for three voices, SAA, distributing the
melodic material between the parts. Other arrangements exist, including SAA and
SATB. The Collins arrangement was limpid and beautiful, evoking the beauty of the
natural world and retaining the freshness that is characteristic of Hildegard’s music.

Then came the piece that the singers seemed to relish the most. ‘Finding Her Here’ is
a setting by Joan Szymko (b. 1957) of a poem by Jayne Relaford Brown. Szymko is
a contemporary US composer, known for her lyricism and exquisite attention to text.
‘I am becoming the woman I wanted’, the sopranos sang, over the altos’ ‘knows
she’s a survivor’. The ‘I am becoming’ phrase was repeated underneath the upper
parts, then handed around. ‘I find her becoming, this woman I wanted’, they sang
tutti; ‘who knows she is plenty’. It’s a lovely work, and the Note Bene women sang it
with a calm assurance that matched the confidence of af Klint’s ten largest paintings.

‘Vem kan segla’ (‘Who can sail without wind?) is a folk song from Åland. There are
many arrangements. Condon chose one by the Finnish composer Jonna Salminen
for SSAA. It has a jazzy swung rhythm and beautiful harmonic effects, with some
lovely close part-writing. That was followed by a surprising setting of Tennyson’s
words ‘There is Sweet Music’ from ‘Song of the Lotos-Eaters’. Set for SSAA by the
American composer Daniel E. Gawthrop, it was delicate, not in the least Victorian,
and very sweet.

‘In the Sweet Summertime’ is a traditional Swedish folk song arranged by the
Norwegian Kim André Arnesen (b. 1980). It had a lilting 3/4 insouciance, with a
soprano solo over sustained chords from the four parts. ‘Go forth my heart, and seek
the light’, she sang, as though speaking of the artist and her intentions.

The last work was intended to respond to the last painting in the series, about the
end of life. ‘I go with a thousand thoughts’ is a Swedish folk song arranged for SSAA
by the Swedish composer, teacher, and choir-master Anna Cederberg-Orreteg (b.
1958). It is a love song (‘I grieve till death/ for the one I cannot have’) and there are
many arrangements. Cederberg-Orreteg’s arrangement had a lovely syncopated
introduction and was poised and accepting.

This small concert was beautifully programmed by Shawn Condon, who has lived in
Finland and is familiar with the music of the Baltic. A fitting complement to the
mysterious paintings of Hilma af Klint.

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