‘I find her becoming’: Nota Bene at 20

Nota Bene
Twentieth Anniversary Gala Concert

St Andrews on the Terrace,
27 April 2024

What’s the difference between an orchestra and a choir? No, not a trick question. The
difference is that choirs usually love their music directors.

At Nota Bene’s 20 th anniversary concert on Saturday, the affection and trust between
conductor and choir were evident. Nota Bene is a Wellington choir founded by Christine
Argyll, who served for ten years. She was followed by Peter Walls (2016-19) and Maaike
Christie-Beekman (from 2020 to the present). All three were conducting on Saturday, along
with choir member Shawn Condon, who has been guest conductor at times. The result was
interesting. The audience could observe the different styles and approaches and compare
the results.

Nota Bene is a chamber choir, but the anniversary concert attracted a few former members,
so it fielded 43 singers, including the conductors, all of whom sang when they were not
waving their arms about. The programme was a kind of greatest hits of the last 20 years,
favourite works of the conductors – which worked most of the time. Brackets were
interspersed by little histories of this or that aspect of choir life. Too many of them, I thought;
a bit too cosy and self-congratulatory, since the audience was mostly people who are not
choir members. Some of the content would have been better suited to the after-match party.

Nota Bene, on its best days, has a beautiful sound. The tenor section is warm and creamy,
the sopranos bright and tuneful. This was evident in the first work on the programme, an
arrangement of the timeless ‘Es ist ein Ros’, which incorporated humming (very hard to stay
in tune) and a vocal quartet singing the tune, very slowly. There was an alto solo from
Maaike Christie-Beekman (such a gorgeous voice). A lovely start.

Next was ‘The Shepherd’s Carol’ (Sansom/Chilcott), which also featured humming, again
with bright, fresh soprano tone, gorgeous tenor sound, and subtle bass action. It was
followed by Arvo Pärt’s ‘Bogoroditse Devo’ (a setting of the Russian Orthodox Ave Maria).

Most of us are used to the slow, alto-driven Rachmaninov version. Pärt’s setting is fast and
lively (though not very Russian or even reverent in feel), and the Nota Bene basses rose to
the occasion.

Jacqui Coats, who has been responsible for the choir’s stagecraft, spoke about the staged
concerts, one of which was St Nicholas (in 2011), under Michael Vinten. I was sorry to have
missed that. Another that the choir was proud of was ‘A Sentimental Journey’, based on the
conceit of a late-night radio request session, which sounded like great fun.

Next came David Hamilton’s ‘Caliban’s Song’. I am used to the Viva Voce version, which still
gets airplay on RNZ Concert. VV has a much more operatic sound than NB, especially in
the higher voices, whereas NB is more choral in tone. The Hamilton was exciting, with very
beautiful singing in the chordal passages.

Then Peter Walls took over for a bracket of Purcell Psalm settings. Psalm 63 was scored for
Treble Countertenor Tenor and Bass. Peter Walls used an ATB trio for one of the verses
and trio of women’s voices (SSA) for the other, which worked well. He followed it up with
Psalm 79 (SSATB) that incorporated a beautiful quartet, and Psalm 104 (SSATB), originally
written with a basso continuo. Once again, rich Purcellian sonority, enlivened texturally by
two trios: first ATB (Virginia Earle, Nick McDougall, and Robert Easting) taking the cantor’s
part, and next SAA (Tina Carter, Marian Wilberg, and Marian Campbell). Intellectual,
restrained beauty.

Maaike Christie-Beekman took the podium for the last two items in the first half:
Rheinberger’s ‘Abendlied’, with mellifluous tenors and, later, bright soprano voices floating
over the chords of the three lower parts; followed by Lauriden’s schmaltzy crowd-pleaser,
‘Sure on this Shining Night’, dedicated to Peter Barber and two other deceased choir
members. Heather Easting played the piano with delicacy, and the choir showed off its lovely
lower voices, followed by a fabulous first soprano moment – ‘bright but not shrill’, say my
notes. There are big dynamic movements in this work, an exciting crescendo to ff, and a
very beautiful decrescendo from mp to pp.

After the interval, Shawn Condon took the podium to conduct Fergus Byett’s sentimental
Karanga Akau. There’s an awful lot of Māori in this work, and the language wasn’t entirely
convincing. Once again, the choir was supported by Heather Easting on piano; the tenors
led and were lovely as ever, and the choir navigated the interesting harmonies with
conviction. The next work was by Graham Parsons, a charming setting of a poem by Jenny
Bornholdt, ‘How to get ahead of yourself while the light still shines’, with Heather Easting on
piano. Despite some tricky writing, the choir performed it with verve, clearly enjoying

Next the men took a back seat, and the women sang ‘Sing Creation’s music on’, a setting of
the John Clare poem by Stephen Paulus. Although Heather Easting and the women did a
good job of this under Shawn Condon’s direction, the work sounds ill-judged as a
composition, far too big and bombastic for the slender little poem. Clare is not a poet who
shows off; but Stephen Paulus, an American composer and Grammy winner, did not let that
get in his way. It was, I fear, noisy.

Undaunted, we had some Hildegard of Bingen (the lovely ‘O Frondens Virga’) arranged by
the American composer Drew Collins. I’ve sung the original Hildegard plainchant, and I was
unconvinced by this arrangement on first hearing, but I would need to hear it again to make
a judgement. Next came ‘There is Sweet Music’, a piece of Tennyson set by the American
choral composer Daniel Gawthrop, which I thought was absolutely gorgeous – ‘static and
tender’, according to my notes. The last work of this women’s bracket with Shawn Condon
was ‘Finding her here’ by Joan Szymka, a terrific work that I first heard NB perform at the
Hilma af Klint exhibition at the City Gallery. It was just as good on a second hearing.

Next, the men came forward for an unconducted version of Billy Joel’s ‘And so it goes’,
arranged by Bob Chilcott. This was a show-stopper – insouciant, plaintive, resigned – with
excellent singing on the part of the tenors, and a ravishing solo by baritone Simon Christie
with humming sotto voce support. It doesn’t do to interrogate the words if you are not given
to sentimentality, but the arrangement was anything but sentimental. Stunning!

The choir came back together for the last two works under Maaike Christie-Beekman. One,
‘Bruremarsj’, I think may have been included in the Hilma af Klint concert. It’s a Norwegian
wedding song, and required audience participation (clicking or clapping on the off beats). It is
a sunny work and it was sung with gusto. The last work in a very full concert was another
Gawthrop work, ‘Sing me to Heaven’. Whilst it was well sung, I greatly disliked the text,
which is pretentious (‘In my heart’s sequestered chambers/lie truths stripped of poet’s gloss’)
and bathetic (‘and my soul finds primal eloquence’). Save me! The sentimental nonsense of
the work certainly established the low-brow end of NB’s repertoire. What a shame, I thought,
to wallow in tosh at the end of an otherwise lovely concert. If only they had done a reprise of
the Billy Joel to take the sickly taste away. But I may have been alone in this thought.

Congratulations, Nota Bene, on a great first twenty years. Onward!

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