Flavoursome Janáček and Dvořák from the Bach Choir

The Bach Choir of Wellington presents:
JANÁČEK – Otče náš (Our Father)
DVOŘÁK – Mass in D Major, Op.86

Laura Dawson (soprano), Sinéad Keane (alto),
Theo Moolenaar (tenor). Simon Christie (bass)
Michelle Velvin (harp), Douglas Mews (organ)
Bach Choir of Wellington
Musical Director – Shawn Michael Condon

St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace, Wellington

Saturday, 13th April 2024

I couldn’t recall a previous time I’d walked into St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace Church in Wellington and straightaway been confronted by an audience of faces rather than heads entirely – well in most cases! – of hair – as if in a dream I had suddenly and bewilderingly been thrust into the role of a performer or celebrant in what was to follow, instead of an accustomedly passive onlooker!

Of course this audience volte-face was arranged so that singers and instrumentalists in both works could be more closely arrayed than was often the case in works requiring the services of the splendid pipe organ and a choir of reasonable size, not to mention a quartet of solo singers and a harpist with her instrument to boot! It resulted in a different kind of “spaciousness” to that end-to-end kind normally afforded by the church for choral concert music accompanied by an organ.

Actually, the relative “novelty” of the arrangement further intensified the stimulation I’d previously noted in listening to recordings of these works which were entirely new to me! I put a lot of it down to the music’s distinctive “Czech” quality, present in spadefuls throughout Leos Janáček’s Otče náš (the setting of the prayer ”Our Father”) by dint of so many characteristic composer-fingerprints in the music’s making.

But even in the more conventionally-presented Dvořák Mass there were numerous aspects which proclaimed a kind of expression which, though influenced by, was nevertheless apart from most of the familiar stylistic formalities of the Austro-German tradition of church music, drawing instead from the composer’s folk-influenced roots with a plaintiveness and simplicity of utterance that readily evoked an awareness of and a feeling for the natural world and an ordinary, simple being’s place in it.

First up, however, was the Janáček work, opened by the organ and harp, and joined by the voices, firstly the basses, and then in canonic imitation, the altos, a strong, simple and beautiful effect, with both vocal strands drawing resonances, it seemed, from one another, as with the lighter and no less beautiful exchanges between tenors and sopranos which followed. Tenor soloist Theo Moolenaar brought a wonderful fervour to his first solo, his ringing top notes creating a frisson which was carried forward by the entry of the choir in reply. A rhapsodic instrumental interlude for organ and harp paved the way for another solo from the tenor, beautifully echoed by the choir and by the organ, joined by the harp for further rhapsodising (delightful playing, as throughout, from both Douglas Mews and Michelle Velvin!)

What a contrast, then, came with the choir’s tumultuous entry imploring our “daily bread”, with particular insistence upon dnes, the word for bread, flung upwards and outwards into the spaces overhead! – and how readily the tenor then implored the choir’s responses to his plea for forgiveness of humankind’s trespasses, with organ hand harp adding their own heartfelt contributions. Finally, a particularly “grunty” organ passage heralded a vigorous and even biting response from the voices in matters pertaining to temptation and evil before assenting the prayer’s plea further and finally with a number of ringing and rousing “Amens!”

My delight in recent discovery concerning the Dvořák Mass which followed was happily taken further by this performance, complete with the “togetherness” of the entire ensemble crowded into the St.Andrew’s organ-loft doubtless reflecting the circumstances of the work’s premiere. Dvořák’s original commission for the work had come from one of his patrons, the architect Josef Hlavka, and involved the inauguration of a small chapel in the Bohemian village of Lužany, the place which gave the Mass its nickname.

I was able to savour all over again those sweet opening phrases of the work in the “Kyrie”, here beautifully floated by the choir, with conductor Shawn Michael Condon beautifully controlling the “ebb-and-flow’ dynamics of the lines, creating an almost lullabic sound around a crescendo of tones and associated emotions. The “Christe” passages made a telling contrasted effect, especially when the Kyrie refrain returned at the end, plus some briefly reiterated “Christe christe” murmurings.

A vigorously-begun, declamatory “Gloria” took us to a stately and lyrical “Et in terra pax hominibus”, which grew back the music’s jubilation through the following “Laudamus te”, before reaching a splendid choral climax at “Glorificamus te”. The most moving sequences for me came with the interplay of the soloists and choir throughout the “Domine Deus” sections where first the choir, and then the soloists brought out the beauty of the exchanges, the choir then excitingly bringing out the music’s energies at “Suscipe deprecationem nostrum”, and continuing with a robust “Cum Sancto Spiritu’ followed by resoundingly satisfying “Amens”.

Another moment to savour was the surprisingly lyrical and serenade-like opening to the “Credo”, the women’s voices sweetly alternating with the rest of the choir – by contrast, the “Deum de Deo” sections brought forth some unexpectedly explosive interjections, with the organ’s chording in places bordering on the discordant. A pause gave us breathing-space for the contrast at the soloists’ taking up of the “Et incarnatus est” with beautiful work from all concerned, beginning with alto Sinéad Keane and bass Simon Christie, and followed just as effulgently by soprano Laura Dawson and tenor Theo Moolenaar, who, together with the choir, brought about a palpable sense of peace with the gently-breathed “Et homo factus est”.

Dvořák doesn’t disappoint with the contrasting force of his setting of “Crucifixus etiam pro nobis” – the voices unsparingly produced fierce and harrowing tones, while the following “Passus et sepultus est” expressed the grief in a vastly different way, with hushed tones and ever-increasing resignation. How appropriate, then was the different kind of contrast again wrought by “Et resurrexit tertia die”, one expressed with lilting rhythms and ascending lines blossoming with the help of the organ. The rest of the setting seemed to me to emulate a pealing of church bells expressed in vocal terms, an effect accentuated by the “swinging” trajectories of the music and the “folksiness” of the organ’s squeeze-box-like timbres, leading inevitably to the joyously-voiced “Amens” at the end.

Bells were again brought to mind by the opening of the Sanctus, the voices enchanting us with a well-nigh irresistible carillion of sounds and resonating “HJosannas” at the end. Came the “Benedictus” with its piquant organ solo at the beginning and “entranced” vocal entries, producing slow-moving near-oceanic waves of sound – a wonderful sequence, broken by the joyous return of the Sanctus.
It was left to the “Agnus Dei’ to conclude the work, simply and sonorously sung by the soloists in turn, beginning with the tenor, and then the alto, soprano and bass. After repeated and affecting soundings of the words “Miserere nobis” from the choir, the tenor then introduced the words “Dona nobis pacem”, echoed with most affecting beauty by the choir, the word “pacem” seeming to ring in our ears as a haunting message, indeed, even a directive, for our time……

Very great credit to all concerned with the Bach Choir of Wellington for a well-planned and engagingly-delivered concert, eminently worthy of ongoing memory…….

The Bach Choir of Wellington – ambitious and imaginative ANZAC concert

DURUFLE –  Requiem
– and  music for ANZAC Day.

The Bach Choir of Wellington
Directed by Shawn Michael Condon

Sinéad Keane – mezzo soprano
William McElwee -baritone
Lucas Baker – violin|
Eleanor Carter – cello
Douglas Mews – piano & organ

Wellington Cathedral of St Paul

Saturday 22 April 2023

(Guest reviewer – Roger Wilson)

The Bach Choir, an important component of Wellington’s musical life for the past 55 years, is in good heart. Under the astute direction of Shawn Michael Condon the overall sound made by 50-odd voices is well integrated, intonation and the balance  between the parts good. It was easy to see that the choir has been well rehearsed with considerable attention to detail, but it has to be said that in the notoriously cavernous acoustic of Wellington Cathedral of St Paul it was sometimes more a matter of seeing people doing all the right things rather than always hearing the benefits. A pity, because this was an enterprising and interesting programme. Were it not for needing the organ close by it might have been worth turning the pews round and placing the choir in the gallery against the west wall.

The first half of the concert comprised a selection of pieces selected with themes appropriate for ANZAC Day, remembrance of the fallen, contrition, a longing to escape the horrors of war, praise of the saviour, grief for the separation from a beloved, a reflection on mortality and jubilation at the vision of a better world post-War. Some of these works  were very  familiar, especially Elgar’s We will remember them, a setting of Binyon’s For the Fallen, and Parry’s account of Tennyson’s Crossing the Bar, others new to most listeners. None was more effective than contemporary composer Thomas LaVoy’s The Last Letter, a poignant  farewell written by an American Civil War soldier to his dearly loved wife. The performance was much enhanced by the addition of a baritone soloist, William McElwee, which ensured that the all-important text was declaimed with a clarity difficult for the choir to achieve  in the circumstances. Another highlight of the half – even occasioning spontaneous applause – was the fifth movement, Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus,  of Messiaen’s visionary Quartet for the End of Time, composed and first performed in a German prison camp. The duet for cello and piano was beautifully played by Eleanor Carter and Douglas Mews who observed the difficult instruction ‘Infiniment lent, extatique’ scrupulously. In the  preceding Parry work Lucas Baker’s solo violin also sounded beautifully in the space.

Perhaps less successful, despite the choir’s best efforts, was Tallis’ motet O sacrum convivium, anglified to I call and Cry to thee, where the clarity of the musical lines was harder to distinguish. Another living American composer, Craig Carnahan, supplied a wonderfully exuberant Armistice 1918, War poet Siegfried Sassoon’s Everyone suddenly burst out singing,  to end the first half with enthusiasm.

The second half of the concert was Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem, really the only work for which the French composer is remembered. It was commissioned by the collaborationist Vichy régime in 1941 and completed in 1947 so it is also very much wartime music. The original commission was for a symphonic poem but Duruflé decided instead on a requiem, eventually dedicated to the memory of his father, but it might well also be for the fallen in World War II. A church musician all his life, Duruflé used a great deal of thematic material from the Gregorian chant of the Mass for the Dead, skilfully interwoven with his own harmonies. The ghost of Fauré and his Requiem with the whiff of incense are never far away. Both composers deliberately avoid the terrors of the Day of Judgment, such a feature of other Requiems, stressing rather tranquillity and rest, and the configurations of both French Requiems, for all their differences, are also similar, even to the apportioning of solo voices (Offertorium, Pie Jesu and Libera Me). Duruflé’s work, conceived for a large church, lent itself  to Wellington Cathedral’s particular properties and such is his skill as an organist that one does not miss the full orchestral version. With its sinuous Gregorian lines, the choral singing of the Requiem, underpinned by the masterful Douglas Mews on the organ, worked convincingly in this cathedral, and the Bach Choir did composer and conductor proud. William McElwee took the baritone solos tidily and Sinéad Keane sang the Pie Jesu with stylish commitment.

This was an ambitious and imaginative concert, despite some reservations about the building, well conceived and executed to a good-sized audience.

“The Long Day Closes” – Mozart, with “Evening Music and Lullabies” from the Bach Choir of Wellington

Mozart Vesperae Solennes de Confessore, K339
Evening Music and Lullabies by Franck, Brahms, JS Bach, Karg-Elert, Haydn, Lauridsen, Whitacre, Sullivan and David Hamilton

The Bach Choir of Wellington
Music Director:  Shawn Michael Condon
Accompanist:  Douglas Mews
Vocal Soloists: Shaunagh Chambers (soprano), Kate Manahi (mezzo), LJ Crichton (tenor), Samuel McKeever (bass)

St Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace

Saturday, 24 July 2021

This was a concert of two halves, as they say in rugby. The first half consisted of the advertised Mozart Solemn Vespers, and the second half consisted of ‘Evening Music and Lullabies’, on the basis, I suppose, that Vespers is the evening prayer service, one of the Canonical Hours in the Catholic liturgy, although you wouldn’t find any of these items following a Catholic Vespers. But more of this later.

The liturgical Vespers consists of five psalms, preceded by a chant and followed by the Magnificat, with the doxology (‘Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto…’) at the end of every psalm. Mozart wrote this Vespers for the Cathedral of Salzburg in 1780. It is scored SATB with a small orchestra including two trumpets and three trombones, basso continuo plus organ, but in this case Douglas Mews substituted for everything.

For the first half of the concert, the choir was stationed in the gallery of St Andrews, around the organ. This must have been a bit of a squeeze, because there are nearly 60 of them, plus four soloists. I couldn’t see how cramped they were, though, because I was sitting at the front of the back half of the seating, facing forwards. The front half of the seating had been rearranged to face inwards, separated by a narrow aisle.

I was in St Andrew’s a few weeks ago for the terrific Inspirare concert, where the choir (all 18 of them) sang from the choir loft, but that evening all the downstairs seating faced backwards.  In both cases, putting the choir up in the gallery worked well. Now that St Andrew’s has thrown a cool three million at the organ, we can probably expect more of it. It strikes me that the choir sound is enhanced by singing upstairs, even in a dryish acoustic.

In any event, I was waiting for the choir’s first note with slight trepidation. The Bach Choir was once an excellent choir, but it fell on hard times. ‘What do they sound like these days under Shawn Condon?’ I wondered. Much, much better is the answer. The first phrase of the ‘Dixit Dominus’ was full and confident; the second higher and louder. The choir’s sound had a fuzzy quality, a bit like peach fuzz, which I found oddly beautiful. With a choir of sixty, it’s easier to sing loudly than quietly, and very hard to sing exactly together, so the fuzz was probably the result of dozens of tiny inexactnesses. Still, the opening filled me with confidence. This was going to be a great concert.

And so it proved. There were four soloists supporting the choir, all young singers at the start of their careers. The soprano gets the most work, being given the well-known Laudate Dominum (aka Psalm 117) with the choir as backing group. In this case, it was Shaunagh Chambers who was doing the full Kiri. She is in her honours year at New Zealand School of Music, where she is taught by Jenny Wollerman and Margaret Medlyn. She has a lovely voice for Mozart, bright and agile, and she sang the few florid passages she was granted with athleticism, plus Wollerman-like precision and beauty. But the other soloists were no slugs, even though they had hardly anything to do. I was especially taken with the delicious dark sound of Samuel McKeever, the bass soloist. He is a graduate of Project Prima Volta and recently performed with the NZSO. Tenor Lila Crichton was also great, and mezzo Kate Manahi, like the tenor and bass, a Project Prima Volta graduate, has a glorious voice. They sounded beautiful together in their quartet passages.

Early on the choir’s diction was rather muddy, but it had improved by the time they got to the doxology of the second psalm, Confiteor tibi. The dynamics were somewhat samey at first with a lot of mf and not much else until the third psalm, Beatus vir. Here the soloists sang as a quartet, and the choir’s first entry was a bit pallid after their brilliant tone. The basses begin No 4 Laudate pueri, but the tenors follow straight after. There are currently 12 basses in the choir but only six tenors, yet the tenors sounded gorgeous: they have a completely unified sound, young and fresh, which creates the effect of much bigger forces. The altos, I thought, often sounded underpowered, getting lost in the texture, yet there are 17 of them.

Mozart’s Magnificat in this Vespers is not subtle: word-painting applied by trowel. By the time they got to ‘quia respexit’ the choir was giving it plenty of welly, and the tenor section briefly overblew. But the soloists came to their rescue. Though the women nearly came to grief in ‘dispersit’, they were brought into cohesion in ‘Abraham et semini eius’ which sounded definitive. The soloists led into the doxology, followed by the choir. The tenors were briefly a bit on the rough side – pushing too hard? And then it was over.

The pieces in the second half of the concert were a mixed bag. It opened with César Franck’s setting of Psalm 150, a gorgeous thing, with the choir accompanied by the organ. The work was composed to inaugurate the new organ at the Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles in Paris, and was scored for organ, choir, and orchestra. The aim is to show off the capabilities of the organ, and Douglas Mews did a splendid job; supported by the choir, with fluting sopranos and the men lyrical and majestic by turns.

Next came my favourite work of the concert, a very Brahmsian rendering of ‘Wie lieblich sint deine Wohningen’, the most performed movement from the German Requiem. They sang in great rolling waves of sound, with the altos sometimes getting lost in the texture, and then found again. The basses sounded splendid. The subito piano was dramatic, and the occasional drop in tuning (a loss of energy at the ends of phrases) went almost unnoticed.

Then came an organ and chorus version of Bach’s ‘Nun danket alle Gott’ from BWV 79 which seemed a bit antique after the lush chords of the Brahms, with the choir singing the harmonized hymn tune and the organ providing all the elaborations. I wondered why it was here, out of time and not very ‘evening’ in theme; but before I had formed the thought it was attaca Karg-Elert’s rowdy setting of the same tune as a triumphal march, in case the Bach had put anyone to sleep. It was a magisterial showing off of everything the refurbished organ can do. Douglas Mews must have eleven arms.

The choir moved downstairs, and stood at the front of the church to sing David Hamilton’s ‘God be in my head’, a movement from a mass written for the choirs of Westlake Boys and Girls schools. I was surprised to see that the Bach Choir is older than it sounds. (In my day, the Bach Choir comprised under-35s.) The Hamilton was a capella and more challenging, but they sang it sweetly and simply, heads mostly buried in their scores. Mews came down to join them at the piano for Haydn’s ‘Evening Song’, a rare work for accompanied choir that was not commissioned. But it was one choral part song too many for me. This would have been the moment to use the four soloists, who had sung so little.

Next came ‘Sure on this Shining Night’, a poem setting by the American composer and mystic Morten Lauridsen. Shawn Condon was on home turf now; the dynamic indications were clear, the tuning mostly excellent. It was followed by another popular American, Eric Whitacre (b.1970). ‘The Seal Lullaby’ was originally composed for wind ensemble. Whitacre is beloved of choirs, and it’s likely that no one ever lost money by programming him, although I find him light to the point of weightlessness. But the choir sang with conviction.

And still two more works to go! Arthur Sullivan’s ‘The Long Day Closes’ came next. This too would have been great to give the soloists (although there was already too much music for one concert). Or not sing it at all. Still, there were some great low notes from the second basses.

Finally, the last work in the programme, David Hamilton’s arrangement of ‘Hine, e Hine’, a lovely thing that benefited from the assistance of the soloists singing with the choir. Alas, it was over too fast. All in all, a delightful concert that would have been better if it had been shorter.







Dvorak’s “Stabat Mater” given sweet and resounding treatment by Wellington’s Bach Choir

The Bach Choir of Wellington presents –
DVOŘÁK – Stabat Mater Op.58

Michaela Cadwgan (soprano)
Linden Loader (contralto)
Jamie Young (tenor)
Simon Christie (bass)

Douglas Mews (piano)

Shawn Michael Condon (conductor)

Queen Margaret College, Thorndon, Wellington

Saturday, 17th April, 2021

I had momentarily forgotten that my Middle C colleague of the time, Lindis Taylor, had reviewed a performance of this work in Paraparaumu as recently as 2018, a circumstance which effectively stymied any thoughts I might have had of extravagantly proclaiming it a “neglected masterpiece”! However, as I didn’t attend this earlier performance and thus came new to the work as a “live” experience on Saturday at Queen Margaret College, I still felt very much imbued with the feeling of “discovery” as a concert-goer (I do own a recording of the music, so was familiar with its general outlines and ebb and flow of emotion, though without having enjoyed that thrill of immediacy that a live concert gives….).

An extra “edge” was given my experience here, quite unintentionally – though I’ve never considered myself dyslexic, I somehow got it into my head that the venue for the concert was Marsden College in Karori! (Well, both “Marsden” and “Margaret” begin with “M”, so surely it was a mistake anybody could have made…….yes? Er, no! – as I found myself to be the ONLY ONE wandering around the grounds and buildings of Marsden after I’d arrived in Karori with only ten minutes to go before starting time!) Thanks to some nifty driving, a reasonably handy car-park in Thorndon, and two kindly people associated with the event who “took care” of me upon my out-of-breath arrival at the Queen Margaret College Hall, I was able to hear most of the opening “Stabat Mater Dolorosa” from the hall doorway, and then squirrel myself into a seat near the door for the rest! My relief at feeling I’d navigated the obstacles, and grateful pleasure at receiving the kind assistance that I did, was then somewhat mitigated by my dropping the car key noisily on the floor of the hall midway through the vocal quartet’s Quis est homo qui non fleret – but afterwards I found myself gradually settling into the atmosphere cast by the music’s spell and its committed-sounding performance.

Though I wasn’t ideally placed to clearly hear parts of the opening movement , from where I was standing it nevertheless sounded as if all sections of the choir were blending their tones beautifully, differentiating the music’s flowing dynamic levels with telling intent, and seeming to give their all in conveying the dramatic building-up of sounds and emotions which took over the music towards the movement’s end in its truly inexorable way – largely a recapitulation of the introductory section, which I was glad to “catch”. The tenor, Jamie Young, also repeated his dramatic entry, which introduced the other vocal soloists’ participation in the ebb and flow of piteous emotion expressed by the words and their settings. At the beginning of the following Quis est homo qui non fleret  (Who is the person who would not weep) contralto Linden Loader’s tremulous but focused tones brought out the words’ desolation, before being joined by the tenor, Jamie Young’s rather more urgently histrionic delivery. Bass Simon Christie contributed a sonorous Quis est homo, sparking a ferment of exchange, before soprano Micaela Cadwgan pinned our ears back with an arresting Pro peccatis suae gentis (for the sins of his people), and then duetted beautifully with Linden Loader, repeating the same phrase, Dvořák here repeatedly giving his singers the movement’s most striking music when delivering these same words, Simon Christie delivering a particularly sonorous solo line at one point. With exemplary pianistic support from the wonderful Douglas Mews, conductor Shawn Michael Condon brought his singers through the torturous ways of their exchanges to a place of suitable contemplation with the words Vidit sum dulcem natum moriendo (She saw her sweet offspring dying) to appropriately moving effect.

The grim, Schubert-like Eja mater, fons amoris (Mother, fountain of love), was given appropriately sombre treatment, the cries of “fac!” properly rending the air, contrasting tellingly with the hushed Ut tecum lugeam (that I may grieve with you).  And in the following Fac, ut ardeat cor meum (Grant that my heart may burn), Simon Christie’s baritonal timbres enabled a moving cantabile line at Un sibi complaceam (to please My Lord), sweetly backed by angelic voices invoking the Mother of God at Sancta mater, istud agas (Grant, Holy Mother) with beatific tones ostensibly at odds with the words’ conjuring up of images suggesting suffering and agony! Though the lack of numbers in the tenor section of the choir were evident, the choir ‘s intensification of delivery made its effect, as did Christie’s more lyrical passages.

Some of Dvořák’s most beautiful writing in the work was for the opening of the chorus Tui nati vulnerate (Let me share with thee his pain), before an anguished and agitated middle section which soon dispersed, the music returning to its lullabic character, here, most winningly realised. Tenor Jamie Young’s delivery of the following Fac me vere tecum flere (Let me sincerely weep with you)  for me came across more successfully in its forthright than in its more lyrical sequences, the singer seeming to find it difficult to relax his voice, and more at home when pumping out the intensities, given that anguish seemed the order of the day, here. The male voices of the choir provided sweet-toned support, echoing the singer’s phrases (very Schubertian, here!), with Young revelling in the “sturm und drang” of Juxta crucem tecum stare (To stand beside the cross with you).

Another lovely choral sequence was provided by Virgo Virginum (VIrgin of Virgins), conductor Shawn Michael Condon getting his voices to sweetly “own” the soaring tessituras, blending the whole-choir strands most beautifully, with Douglas Mews contributing, according to my notes , a “mean accompaniment” here!  If the “piano” version allowed less of the “Slavic” colour of the work to catch the ear, the music’s melodic charm and rhythmic charge was well served by Mews’ idiomatic-sounding playing. The soprano and tenor duet Fac ut portem Christi mortem (Grant that I may bear the death of Christ) came off excitingly, due to their give-and-take combination, and their shared fearlessness at risking rawness when tackling the high-lying passages in each of their parts. The final solo section was given the contralto, a piece which seemed positively Handelian at the start, and certainly very baroque-like! The sentiments also seemed Handelian, calling for trenchant tones! – Inflammatus et accencus (Inflame and set on fire). The central, more lyrical section of the movement brought out the lyric quality of Linden Loader’s voice, returning to forthrightness at the opening’s reprise, and including touches of theatrical darkness at the end, with Confoveri gratia (Let His grace cherish me).

And so, we were brought to the final movement of the work, Quando Corpus Morietur (When my body dies).  The contralto and bass began in beseeching mode, drawing in the soprano and tenor and eventually the choir, building towards a climax in the manner of the first movement, except that this one peaked more positively! As the soloists rhapsodised, in the expectation of the prospect of Paradise, the “Amens” suddenly burst out, soloists and choir exchanging these impulses of affirmation with a wondrous ferment, conductor Shaun Michael Condon steering everything expertly forwards towards a great peroration. The final  Quando corpus morietur , slow, grand and solemn, left Douglas Mews’ piano rhapsodising, and the voices repeating all kinds of ecstatic “Amens” – at the conclusion of it all, the musicians were happily spent, and the audience exhilarated, and appreciative, with a real “buzz” of excitement in the foyer afterwards! Certainly, I thought, a concert well worth desperately scrambling to get to the right venue on the day, for!

*   *           *   *           *   *           *   *

P.S. on a more sombre note, I read the kindly and appreciative note in the programme concerning the recent death of a former director of the Bach Choir, Stephen Rowley, whom I also well remember. I would like to add the condolences of Middle C reviewers past and present to those expressed, to  Stephen’s family.

Rossini’s “Little Solemn Mass” from the Bach Choir at St.Andrew’s triumphantly reaches towards the stars

The Bach Choir of Wellington presents:
ROSSINI – Petite Messe Solennelle

Nicola Holt (soprano)
Linden Loader (contralto)
John Beaglehole (tenor)
Roger Wilson (bass)

Thomas Nikora (harmonium)
Douglas Mews (piano)

The Bach Choir of Wellington

Shawn Michael Condon (conductor)

St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Saturday, May 11th , 2019

I was sure I’d heard this work on at least one occasion previously, and more especially once the music had started – from early on in the opening “Kyrie” there were cadences, phrases and sequences that kept on sidling up to me and nudging me in my inner ear’s ribcage as if to say “Oh, you again! – where have you been?” or more cheekily, “Remember me? – ha! you’re stuck, aren’t you?” – and I was “stuck”, indeed, right until the moment I got home afterwards and looked up the Middle C Archive, to confirm that, on November 20th 2010 I had attended a performance of the work at the Hill St. Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, given by the Festival Singers, and directed by Rosemary Russell. What was more, I had actually reviewed it (oh, dear!), with two of the singers in this afternoon’s performance (Linden Loader and Roger Wilson) also having taken part in that earlier presentation. I’m happy to say that, as per the review I enjoyed the performance enormously!

Apart from my lamentable lack of specific recall, I was pleased I had sufficient juice in my memory-bank to be able to make this previous connection, and then, of course, confirm it with renewed pleasure through hearing the work again. Almost ten years after that first encounter my delight in the music remains undiminished – if anything I was even more taken aback this time round by the composer’s unashamed (and uncontrived) boldness in evoking a musical style more readily associated with the theatre than with a church for a work purporting to be a religious statement, and by the elan with which he brought it off. The swaggering rhythms and heroic vocal manner with which the performers here put across the “Domine Deus” section of the “Gloria” added a further dimension to the depth of feeling built up by the opening “Kyrie” and “Christe” sections to the music, each sequence beautifully shaped by conductor Shawn Michael Condon and delivered with a steadiness and luminosity of tone that did the choristers proud.

Each succeeding section of the work here unfailingly conveyed its special character – both piano and harmonium trumpeted and rolled out their excited, jubilant chords and flourishes at the opening of the “Gloria” in a way that suitably galvanised the voices, leaving us in no doubt of the composer’s desire to acknowledge the Almighty with sounds that reflected His glory. The soloists added resplendent tones to their individual strands, beginning with Roger Wilson’s imposing bass delivery of  “Et in terra pax….” then joined by the others over the “Laudamus te” sections, the soprano leaving the remaining trio with the emphatic, oft-repeated reiterations of “propter magnum gloriam tuam” (for Your great glory), Douglas Mews’ piano conjuring both Lisztian sparkle in the flourishes, and poetic serenity in the quieter concluding measures. After tenor John Beaglehole had thrilled us with the energies and high-wire accomplishments of his “Domine Deus” solos we were brought back to our “vale of tears” by soprano Nicola Holt and contralto Linden Loader in “Qui tollis peccata mundi”,  piquant and heartfelt instrumental tones setting the scene for beautifully expressed vicalisings,  both individually and in concerted blendings in places such as the repeated “Miserere nobis” as the sequence came to its end.

Harmonium player Thomas Nikora sensitively coaxed some plaintive modulations from his instrument , bridging the way to the piano’s building up the rhythmic excitement for Roger Wilson’s assertive “Quoniam”, big-boned and heroic, Rossini making something of a meal of this part of the work (perhaps wanting to curry plenty of favour with the Almighty), complete with its Beethovenian-like accompaniment! After a whimsical piano transition, some great, orchestra-like chords from piano and harmonium brought in the choir for “Cum Sancto Spiritu”, first the gleaming-toned sopranos, and then the rest of the choir, a moment whose magnificence was then somewhat disconcertingly energised by the sopranos’ polka-like rhythmic gait which began the fugue, put across by all the musicians with a delicious sense of fun, complete with long, discursively sinuous “Amen” lines that concluded with a reprise of “Gloria in excelsis Deo” and with the “Amens” appearing more assertively and vigorously  than before!

After an interval, the Credo returned us to the fray, amid instrumental flourishes and great cries of “Credo” from the choir, the music settling down to a flow with the soloists joining in, and the choir occasionally reminding us that this was, in fact, a statement of faith, by reiterating the word “Credo”. The soloists wove their lines into and through the momentums of the texture, conductor Shawn Michael Condon allowing the musical fabric to billow out splendidly in places, but keeping an all-important sense of forward motion, right through to the sudden self-consiousness of the words “et homo factus est”.

Soprano Nicola Holt gave us a long-breathed, beautifully-coloured, by turns anguished and inward “Crucifixus”, securely nailing those fiendish entries at the word “passus” with great aplomb, and conveying so very movingly the sorrow and resignation of the message throughout. The choir launched themselves whole-heartedly into the “Resurrexit”, before alternating with the soloists throughout the beautiful “Et ascendit in caelum” and the more vigorous “Et viterum venturis” and “Et in Spiritum Sanctum” sections, during which it was a pleasure to register the strong focus of the male sections of the choir.

With piano and harmonium returning to the “Et ascendit in caelum” figurations the choir and soloists began “Et unam, sanctam, catholicam”, the choir dominating with their cries of “Confiteor”, racing expectantly towards the “Ex expecto resurrectionem” passages with a sense of great and proper conviction, before plunging into the fugal “Et vitam venturi saeculi” at an exhilarating lick! The choir splendidly took us with them as the music surged unstoppably through the “Amens”, allowing a brief hiatus of murmuring rapture from the voices and instruments before concluding with a final all-affirming shout of “Credo”.

At this point, Rossini inserted a “Prelude Religieux and Ritournelle pour le Sanctus” which, to my ears was played by Douglas Mews, with nary a contribution from Thomas Nikora’s harmonium (throughout I found the harmonium hard to hear in any case as I was sitting over to the right and the instrument was on the platform’s left – and I couldn’t see the player to be able at times to “register” any physical movement)……none of this detracted from Mews’ playing of this very Lisztian episode, the sounds filled with fantasy and fancy. The harmonium did take up the argument just before the voices instigated the Sanctus, the opening beautifully “sounded” by the choir, and “answered” in radiant, declamatory fashion by the soloists. Rossini rang the changes throughout regarding both voices (choir and soloists) and music –  the unfolding of the whole, with its unpredictable juxtapositionings of the different voice-qualities had an almost improvisatory air which enchanted and compelled one’s attention at all times.

Affecting, too, from the very beginning, was the concluding “Agnus Dei”, the piano playing a quixotic Grieg-like opening figure, followed by what sounded almost like an indolent gondola song, over which the contralto, Linden Loader, intoned the famous prayer with every word clearly-focused and precisely-weighted, and the piano/harmonium combination at once remorseless in rhythm and affecting in timbre. The choir’s responses to the soloist in places sounded almost like voices from another world – it seemed to me that the singing beautifully “contoured” the music’s emotional intensities, while the choir’s responses were almost to die for – and what a “frisson” of emotion was unleashed when the voices joined forces for a reprise of  “qui tollis peccata mundi” – as powerful emotionally, I thought, if on a smaller physical scale, as the cataclysmic concluding moments of the “Libera Me” of Rossini’s countryman Giuseppe Verdi, in his “Requiem” – even if the latter, by all accounts wouldn’t thank me for daring to suggest such a thing!


Bach Choir celebrates Saint Cecilia, exploring interesting and important music with flair and taste

Bach Choir of Wellington, directed by Shawn Michael Condon
To St Cecilia and Music

The final concert of the Bach Choir’s 50th year, music from the 16th to 20th Centuries in honour of St Cecilia, patroness of musicians, whose Feast Day is celebrated on 22 November

Nicola Holt (soprano), Jamie Young (tenor), Daniel O’Connor (baritone) and Douglas Mews (organ)

Britten’s Hymn to Saint Cecilia, setting of Auden’s poem
Gerald Finzi: God is gone up with a triumphant shout
Gounod’s Messe Solennelle de Sainte-Cécile
Plus music by Johannes Jeep, William Byrd and Handel

Saint Mary of the Angels

Sunday 16 December, 2 pm

This was a famous concert: not many musical organisations survive for fifty years. In Wellington, only the NZSO and the Orpheus Choir can claim that (and I await outraged contradictions); though it might be possible to add Chamber Music New Zealand, a very important music promoter, which began as a Wellington society in 1945 and spread its reach nationally within a few years.

The Bach Choir has had a distinguished record; founded by organist, harpsichordist, early music scholar and university teacher Anthony Jennings, one of New Zealand’s most gifted musicians, born in 1945 and died tragically young in 1995.

Though Bach has been a pretty constant presence in the choir’s repertoire, he was absent from this concert, which was dedicated to Saint Cecilia, the largely mythical patron saint of music (her day is actually 22 November, which Britten chose as his own birthday in 1913).

The chair of the Choir, Pam Davidson, sketched the choir’s story and explained the way the Saint’s gifts were woven through the concert.

So several of the pieces performed had Saint Cecilia associations. Very appropriately, Britten’s Hymn to Saint Cecilia was here; but perhaps the best known and, for many, the best loved was the Gounod mass.

Renaissance Germany: Johannes Jeep
It began in complete obscurity (for me at least): Johannes Jeep was a Renaissance German composer, contemporary of Scheit, Schein and Schütz, Pretorius, Frescobaldi, Allegri, and in England, Weekles, Gibbons, Campion. He was born and spent his first thirty years in Dransfeld, near Göttingen, NW of Eisenach – and the Bach country, studied in Italy, then Kapellmeister at the court of Hohenlohe (in today’s Baden-Württemberg), then Frankfurt.

With the choir in two parts, half in the organ gallery, Musica, die ganz lieblich Kunst (Music the loveliest art), an a cappella piece, was melodically rather charming and it set the scene for a recital that would be marked by singing of considerable refinement, sensitivity and musicality.

Byrd and Handel
William Byrd’s ‘Sing Joyfully unto God’ was just that, another joyful piece, madrigal-like, with attractive interweaving counterpoint; its huge popularity in the century following its composition was easy to understand.

The piano introduced a chorus from Handel’s oratorio, Solomon, ‘Music, spread thy voice around’, which was another piece that expresses delight in music itself, this time without owing specific indebtedness to God. Now with the choir entirely in front of us, it was harmonically more dense, to be expected in music of 150 years after the previous piece. By this time, I started to pay closer attention to the management of the choir by their director Shawn Michael Condon: his careful ear for balance and integration of parts and matching the sense of the words to singing that made sense of them.

Britten’s Hymn to Saint Cecilia
The substantial item in the first half was Britten’s Hymn to St Cecilia set to a poem that Britten had asked his friend WH Auden to write. Auden complied and Britten worked at it in New York during his three year stay in the United States at the beginning of the Second World War. But it was not performed there and when he sought his exit visa to return to Britain in 1942 US Customs confiscated the score, suspecting it could contain a secret code. Fortunately, Britten had the fortitude to recompose it on the torpedo-infested voyage home and it was given a radio performance later that year (I read nothing of the score’s possible return to the composer later, with humble apologies from the paranoid officials). You can find a short but interesting account of Britten’s and Peter Pears’ American episode in a recent article copied from Gramophone magazine: https://www.gramophone.co.uk/feature/britten-in-america .

The music is quite dense and the church acoustic, generally very sympathetic, allowed it to sound cluttered at times; I think a little modification of the volume, particularly at emphatic moments might have helped. Considering its provenance, and its composition in the middle of the war, it was imbued with delight and optimism – fair enough for a 30-year-old. The dancing liveliness of the second stanza, like a scherzo movement, was brilliantly delivered, and the direct address to the saint at the end of each stanza: “Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions…”, found its contrasting ethereal spirit most successfully.

In the third section, the longest and the poetically and aesthetically most complex, I had the feeling at certain moments that a quite small choir, with most choral parts not far from the effect of solo voices, might produce a more pungent impact. Certainly, the solo parts were among the most joyous elements, though sometimes I wasn’t sure how many voices were involved, not sitting close enough to see who was actually singing. The last part of Section III is simpler, describing individual instruments; it was the most interesting part of this rather enchanting work and the feelings of preciousness that sometimes trouble me with Britten rather fell away (you can tell, I’m not a paid-up Britten groupie).

Poking about on YouTube, I came across a performance of the Britten by Ensemble Vocal du CRR (Conservatoire à Rayonnement Régional) de Montpellier, conducted by Caroline Gaulon; it was sung by small forces, about a dozen by the look of it, with an ecstatic quality and wonderful clarity: pretty good English too: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DAN-TebgYsA). Associated was a clip that I felt was a singularly enchanting collection of St Cecilia music: from Marc Minkowski’s Les Musiciens du Louvre, with music by Purcell, Handel and Haydn: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0hMzZEdxKC0. Recommended!

Finzi triumphant
The second half opened with Gerald Finzi’s festive setting of words by a 17th century Puritan writer who emigrated to Massachusetts, Edward Taylor, based on verses from Philippians 2:9. This, accompanied by Mews at the organ (‘rather unsubtle at the beginning’, I jotted down) was like a continuous, rhapsodic pean of delight. I felt that the men tended to dominate and unbalance the sound in the early stages, but quickly came to enjoy the enthusiasm that drove conductor and choir. It achieves conventional musical shape by treating the second (last) verse as a meditative, slow, movement and then returning to repeat the first stanza with its ‘praise’, ‘triumphant shout’, ‘sounding trumpets’, ‘King of Glory’, asserting that all is well in this best of all possible worlds.

Gounod’s early years
I remember my surprise when I first encountered the Saint Cecilia Mass, from the Wainuiomata Choir under their splendid conductor, John Knox, in the singular setting of the main lobby of the Railway Station (how about choirs negotiating regular performances there, to astonish the communters and promote their gifts to the great unwashed). It was so full of almost secular vitality and tunefulness, not at all the sound of a typical liturgical work. And so I was not surprised that in certain quarters it tended to be denigrated as on the one hand not properly religious, and on the other, too ‘popular’, lacking the seriousness of proper classical music. Those shortcomings were fine by me; not that I don’t love Bruckner and Palestrina too.

Though Gounod had had a mass performed in 1839, aged 20, at the great church of Saint-Eustache just before leaving Paris on winning the Prix de Rome, the eight or ten years after his return were strangely barren as composer; he was a church organist, wrote several other masses, and various songs but nothing that hasn’t deservedly disappeared. Clearly he did not have what one imagines to be the mark of a real composer: music just flowing from his head demanding to be set down. He seems to have sort-of lost the composer ambition and remarked: ‘Je me sentis une velléité d’adopter la vie ecclésiastique’ – he took a fancy to a religious life.

Success in opera
Gounod’s real career started in 1849 aged 30, after he had become a friend of the distinguished singer Pauline Viardot. She spoke of Gounod to the director of the Opéra and he agreed to mounting an opera by him, especially when she promised to sing the title role in the suggested opera, Sapho. Viardot’s suggestion that prominent playwright, Emil Augier, tackle the libretto was again persuasive and suddenly a production by the Paris Opéra was on. What an extraordinary stroke for a composer with scarcely any reputation! Fortunately it was well received, mainly by the critics rather then the public, including Berlioz, at its first run in 1851. Though an aria, ‘O ma lyre immortelle’ is much anthologised, the opera itself didn’t survive.

Another opera La nonne sanglante and incidental music for a play followed, before the Messe solennelle appeared, in 1855. Its Sanctus too has taken a life of its own, shifted from the tenor to soprano – Kiri Te Kanawa among others.

The Messe solennelle – this performance
Finally, I come to the performance itself. The Kyrie opened with beautifully warm, subdued singing by female voices, quickly joined by other sections, with intermittent phrases from the three soloists; sculpted carefully and sounding as if they were deeply involved, though some tonal quality was lost as the singing intensified towards the end. The high soprano voice of Nicola Holt lit the Gloria serenely, joined by the choir in the same reverent tones. Then with the pregnant words ‘Laudamus te’, the full choir brought a totally new spirit of delight to the music, of determination. And the words ‘Domine fili unigenite’ brought a new narrative tone to it, first with solo baritone Daniel O’Connor, then tenor Jamie Young, both revealing voices well cast for the music. Various words that Gounod obviously considered significant continued to get highlighted, such as ‘Dominus Deus’, and the words ‘…qui tollis peccata mundi…’ which most composers clothe in particularly powerful phrases.

Scarcely anyone dares to observe that the best way to distinguish a masterpiece, a popular masterpiece, is almost always through melody. Some great composers get by without a very rich melodic gift, but there’s usually a powerful compensating element like an arresting flair for manipulation of melodic or rhythmic elements, or engaging the listener in a pattern of harmonic and tonal modulations. Try as certain of the severer class of music critics might to denigrate a Rossini or a Vivaldi, a Johann Strauss, or a Gounod, the presence of melodies that hang around long after the performance has ended, is the touchstone, assuming the composer has enough skill and taste to dress them interestingly.

This mass is certainly one of those, and to hear this Credo sung with any conviction tends to elicit the word masterpiece, much as it might sound a little pompous. Gounod breaks certain sections up, so the Credo completely changes its character from the confidence of the first exclamatory part, the grand ‘Deum de Deo, lumende lumine’, going quiet at ‘Qui propter sunt’, and especially ‘Et incarnatus’ with the soloists pianissimo, the singing moving between soloists to choir constantly, and then dealing with Pilate and the crucifixion in severe tones. The music of the beginning returns with the triumphant ‘Et resurrexit’, while the catalogue of beliefs continues with appropriate religious sanctity.

I dare hardly mention the one drawback of the concert: the absence of an orchestra, noticeable in the instrumental Offertory. Yet Douglas Mews created a sensitive and persuasive account of it on the Maxwell Fernie organ, and of the many moments elsewhere where the orchestra makes attractive gestures. And there was no escaping the quality of the singing under the choir’s director Shawn Michael Condon: clearly articulated, dynamically flexible and varied, and simply interesting in its story-telling character.

Gounod wrote the Sanctus for a tenor with intermittent choir. It’s the most popular part, often sung today by a soprano, like Kiri Te Kanawa. Jamie Young delivered a fine calm account of it, and he sang the ‘Pleni sunt coeli’ with a passion, that the organ supported very well.

The Benedictus is no less affecting and the choir and soprano Nicola Holt gave a moving performance of it, with its highlighted ‘Hosanna in excelsis’ delivered resolutely at the end.

It has always seemed to me that the Agnus Dei was a little less interesting than the rest of the mass. While there were lively things and of course it was splendidly sung in spite of small signs of fatigue, there were a few more signs of conventional harmonic shifts and of a composer who was going through the motions rather than breaking new ground (to use a couple of hackneyed figures of speech).

So in all, this was an excellent concert; a rewarding theme that was intelligently and resourcefully explored and exploited, a fine venue – wonderful to have St Mary’s back in good health, while the City Council has wasted several years dithering over the fate of the Town Hall – and finally, performed with taste and considerable skill under capable leadership.


Masses in times of war celebrated by the Bach Choir under Ivan Patterson

Kodály: Missa Brevis
Haydn: Mass in D minor, H 22/11 (Missa in Angustiis or ‘Nelson’ Mass)

Bach Choir of Wellington, conducted by Ivan Patterson, with Douglas Mews (organ), Rowena Simpson (soprano), Maaike Christie-Beekman (mezzo), Jamie Young (tenor), Simon Christie (bass)

St. Peter’s Church, Willis Street

Sunday, 10 December 2017, 3 pm

With a great line-up of soloists and some marvellous music to sing, the stars were lined up well for the Bach Choir’s concert.  A sizeable audience was present to hear them.  The title for the concert derives from the fact that both masses were written under the stress of wartime conditions: Napoleonic Wars in Haydn’s case and the Russians beating back the Nazis in Budapest in 1943 in Kodály’s case.  The latter work had extra point by being performed within days of the composer’s birthday.

While the Haydn work was written to be performed with orchestra (here, organ substituted), the Kodály was scored for chorus and organ in its original version.  An impressive organ prelude to the work was almost impeccably played by Douglas Mews, and formed a fine introduction.  It was followed by a beautiful, almost ethereal ‘Kyrie’ movement. from the choir.

Jamie Young intoned the plainsong chant before the appropriate movements; before the ‘Gloria’ it immediately was striking and firm.  The choir followed, also strongly.  The soloists turn came in ‘Qui tollis’; it was notable for the solo singing of Maaike Christie-Beekman, who was strong and confident as usual, as well as producing a lovely tone.  Then Simon Christie sang, his sound firm and rich, followed by Jamie Young.  Finally the choir took over at ‘Tu solus sanctus’ and made a good ending to the movement.

Throughout, Kodály’s clear, uncompromising, different harmonies were apparent, but made some difficulties for the choir; intonation sagged in a few places, mainly in quiet passages.  Otherwise the singing was good, and clear.  Having sung this work, I know it is not easy.  Not only are some of the harmonies difficult, the bass notes required to be sung are sometimes very low.

The ‘Credo’ is sung by the choir, and the music differs for its three sections: God the Father and Creator; Christ’s Incarnation and Crucifixion; his Resurrection and Ascension.  The colours, tempi and moods of the music were expressed well by the choir, and words for the most part were clear.  The tone from the sopranos especially was splendid.

The ‘Sanctus’ opened with pianissimo from the women.  The altos sounded less secure than the sopranos.  Here, as elsewhere, there was plenty of contrast, and key modulations.  There was a need for more attention to consistent vowel shaping.

Varying tonalities featured in the ‘Benedictus’ also.  The choir a few times were not totally with the organ rhythmically.  The high notes for the sopranos were excellent.  However, I found grating the constant ‘Hosannerin’, having been tutored in choirs to make a brief glottal stop after the final ‘a’ in the word.

In the ‘Agnus Dei’, the ‘qui tollis’ was most beautifully introduced from the tenor and mezzo, soon joined by stratospheric sopranos.  It was delightful to hear ‘Agnus dei’ pronounced beautifully, and not as ‘Agnes Day’, who made an appearance on the radio in the morning.

The Missa Brevis is an impressive work, and some but not all of this was conveyed by this performance.  Douglas Mews had a huge role in this; the work ended with a magnificent postlude from him.

The ‘Nelson’ Mass is a very different work, although it too featured a grand organ introduction (in this version)..  Then the soprano appears early in the piece; her ‘Kyrie’ was clear and strong.  The choir men, however, were not quite in tempo for a bit following their entry.

In this mass in this mass there are wonderful contrasts between the grand and the intimate.  The ‘Gloria’ introduced the soloists – soprano, tenor and bass; all were first-class, and a joy to hear.  Douglas Mews’s variations of registrations throughout echoed the instruments that would be heard in the full orchestral version, and were splendidly realised.  Simon Christie gave us some gorgeous low notes in ‘Qui tollis’ against Mews’s gorgeous organ.  Rowena Simpson’s ‘deprecationem nostram’ was superb, likeweise the ‘quoniam’.  Some of the men’s vowels were what Peter Godfrey would have called ‘agricultural’.  Intonation was more secure here than in the preceding work, but then the Haydn is much easier to pitch.  Rowena Simpson had plenty of radiant solo singing in the here, whereas she did not have much to do in the Missa Brevis.

However, pitch dropped ajust a little in the ‘Credo’ movement.  The lively parts of the ‘Credo’, such as ‘Et incarnatus est’ found the choir flexible and agile.  ‘The ‘Et resurrexit’ was taken very fast, but the choir coped.  There are so many felicities in this wonderful work.

The ‘Sanctus’ received a splendid performance.  A feature of the ‘Benedictus’ was the beautifully phrased and articulated organ part.  There were a few raw notes from the tenors, but the rest of the choir sounded very good.  As elsewhere, the writing provided plenty of climaxes.

The ‘Agnus Dei’ was cheerful in character, yet subtle too, with complex interweaving of the soloists’ quartet.  They then joined the choir in the final ‘Dona nobis pacem’ section.

Altogether, it was a most successful concert.  The voices soared, as did the audience’s spirits.  Thank you Papa Haydn, Kodály and Bach Choir, accompanist and soloists.  St. Peter’s proved to be an excellent e with its beautifully restored pipe organ, its fine acoustics and its good lighting.


Much attractive, well performed music from the Bach Choir

Mozart, Brahms, Bruckner, and Rheinberger

Bach Choir of Wellington, conducted by Maaike Christie-Beekman, with Douglas Mews (organ and piano), Emma Sayers (piano), Nicola Holt (soprano), Jamie Young (tenor), Maaike Christie-Beekman (mezzo)

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday, 17 September 2017, 3.00pm

Surely one of the functions of the NZ Choral Federation Wellington Region should be to have choral directors meet periodically to sort out compatible dates for concerts.  I know this used to happen in Peter Godfrey’s day.  Lately there has been a plethora of choral concerts.  After two last night, it was not surprising that the audience this afternoon was a little lean.  There was a choir performing on 13 August, yet another on 27 August, another on 2 September, another on 6 September, another on 10 September and there is to be another on 30 September, and yet another on 1 October, as well as the three this weekend. These are all different choirs.  That is not counting Hutt Valley or Kapiti choirs.

The programme for today’s concert may not have had wide appeal, but it contained much that was attractive and worth hearing.

The concert began with Douglas Mews playing an organ Chorale Prelude ‘Herzliebster Jesu’ by Brahms (through which the choir stood).  It is a little hard to think of a work based on this chorale without thinking of J.S. Bach’s splendid compositions on the same chorale.   There was nothing wrong with Brahms’s version, but…

The same composer’s Geistliches Lied followed, his earliest accompanied choral work (Douglas Mews accompanied on the organ).  The setting of the words was skilful and the choir sang it well, although the men’s tone was often not well supported, and even became ugly when singing forte.

Anton Bruckner’s beautiful motet Locus Iste from 1869 is a jewel of choral writing.  The quiet singing here was lovely, the harmony well balanced and the total effect very fine.  The composer’s less well-known Christus factus est (from 1994) followed.  It was splendid, with excellent dynamic range and a gorgeous controlled ending.

Josef Rheinberger (1839-1901) is not a familiar name except perhaps to organists.  His motet Abendlied, which he wrote at the age of 15, proved to be quite a demanding work, and suffered some lapses in intonation.  His Angelus Domini was quite an ornate piece, but was performed well.

Mozart’s minor choral works are not often heard, so it was interesting to have his 1777 Alma Dei Creatoris on the programme.  Nicola Holt and Jamie Young were soloists – and Maaike Christie-Beekman, who performed the feat of singing solo lines and then turning to the choir to conduct.  The singing of all the soloists was extremely good in this bright piece.  The choir exhibited impressive, well-balanced tone   Douglas Mews accompanied on piano.

Rheinberger returned after the interval, with two unaccompanied motets.  They revealed the choir’s excellent German pronunciation.  Abendfriede was a beautifully calm piece, and the singers produced an appropriately calm and blended tone.  In the second verse there was some louder singing – here the tone was better than loud singing in the early part of the programme.  Verlust was another attractive piece, sung well.

A return to Brahms: three of his Hungarian Dances for piano duet: nos. 1, 3 and 6 – the last is perhaps the best known, particularly in its orchestrated version.  Emma Sayers and Douglas Mews gave robust and most appealing performances of these, with their own touches, such as rubati, particularly in no.3 (allegretto) and a rousing end to no.6 (vivace).

From ethnic dances (although it has later been found that some were not based on folk themes) to Viennese waltzes: Brahms’s Liebeslieder Walzer, Opp. 52 and 65.  It might have been better to have divided up the 18 songs and sung them interspersed with something else; although attractive, the 18 waltzes in succession were rather too many, and they palled a little.  They were accompanied by piano duet, and one towards the end was a soprano solo while another was a tenor solo.  Nicola Holt particularly has a rich, expressive voice; Jamie Young’s solo was fine.

The choir’s break during the Hungarian Dances seemed to have caused a slight slippage of intonation.  This improved once the singers were warmed up again.  A few songs were for either men’s voices or women’s voices only, and these were very pleasingly performed.

‘On the banks of the Danube’ (translated first line) was a delightful song of varied moods, while the next, ‘O how gently the stream’ was smooth and gentle.  No.11, ‘No, there’s just no getting along with people’ was a lively expostulation, but its follower, exhorting a locksmith, was loud and a bit strident in the male departments.

Women only sang ‘The little bird…’ in a smooth and pleasant manner, while the men  sang similarly in ‘See how clear the waves are’.  The song about the nightingale had a most delightful accompaniment; indeed all the accompaniments throughout the cycle were lively and at the right level for the singers.

‘Love is a dark shaft’ was rather bumpy of rhythm, matching the troubled words, from a man who fell down the shaft.  ‘The bushes are quivering’ was an appealing little song for the choir to end their concert on.  It was beautifully performed.  It was notable how accurate the timing was: the notes being separated by rests, but the choir was spot-on at each entry.

Perhaps the concert was a little like the curate’s egg – but mainly, he would have found the egg satisfactorily cooked.

A well-produced printed programme gave all the words and translations, and included the composers’ dates and those of the compositions.




Peter Walls steps in to conduct Bach Choir in Vivaldi and the Bach family

Bach Choir of Wellington, conducted by Peter Walls, with The Chiesa Ensemble, Douglas Mews (organ) and vocal soloists

Vivaldi’s Gloria, RV 589
Johann Christoph Bach: Fürchte dich nicht.
Johann Ludwig Bach: Das ist meine Freude.
J.S. Bach’s Kyrie-Gloria Mass in B minor of 1733

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday, 13 May 2017, 3.30pm

Great praise is due to Peter Walls for the success of this concert; previous conductor Peter de Blois had departed overseas leaving rather short notice for the preparation of the music.  Without this explanation, the audience would hardly be aware that ample time was not available for rehearsal, such was the high standard of most of the music presented.  One item originally scheduled, by J. Christian Bach, was dropped.  This was no bad thing; the concert was of a more than adequate length with the remaining items.  The church was almost full.

It was good to see (for the first time in New Zealand, in my experience) reproduced in the printed programme, words from the programmes at the Royal Festival Hall in London, regarding the decibels produce by an uncovered cough.  Indeed, I noticed no coughs during this concert.  Notes in the programme were informative, and the words were printed, along with English translations.

First up was Vivaldi’s well-known Gloria, RV 589.  This was taken at a slick pace, but The Chiesa Ensemble, notably the trumpets, were up to it.  The attack from the choir was excellent, as were the gradations of dynamics.  The choir threw themselves into this lively work with vigour, and communication was good, with most singers watching the conductor well.

There were some rough sounds from basses, but generally, balance and blend were admirable.  The quieter second sentence ‘Et in terra pax’ was a beautifully calm contrast to the lively opening ‘Gloria’.  The women soloists (Nicola Holt, soprano, and Megan Hurnard, mezzo-soprano) were animated and well-matched in their ‘Laudamus’ duet.  The soprano solo ‘Domine Deus’ was delightful, not least for the wonderful oboe solo.  The staccato bassoons below the vocal part added clearly articulated character.

The instrumental ensemble, of 22 players, was made up to a large extent of professional musicians from both Wellington-domiciled orchestras, and along with Douglas Mews on the baroque organ, contributed very largely to the success of the performances.  As did the acoustic of St. Andrew’s Church, aiding the choir in achieving a big sound when required.

The bouncy and jubilant ‘Domine Fili’ chorus was for the most part carefully articulated as well as being lively.  The contralto solo (sung here by mezzo-soprano) opened with a  sombre cello solo, accompanied by the organ’s flutes.  Megan Hurnard’s voice was beautifully produced, and her tone appropriate to the sense of ‘Misere nobis’.  The choir’s uniform pronunciation of the words was an exemplary feature of their interjections.

It was strange not to find the soloists’ names listed in the programme, but there were biographies at the back.

The final sections of the piece where sung and played with verve – though a little strain showed in the tenor parts.  Again here, the trumpets excelled.

A complete contrast followed, with an unaccompanied motet by Johann Christoph Bach (1642-1703): Fürchte dich nicht.  It began rather hesitantly but warmed up, and ended well; not an easy piece.

Then it was the turn of Johann Ludwig Bach (1677-1731); the motet Das ist meine Freude.  I have heard this fine choral work for double chorus sung by the New Zealand Youth Choir.  It was sung with vigour, but some of the many runs were not executed convincingly.  However, the German words were well enunciated.

Following the interval, we heard J.S. Bach’s Missa from 1733, better known as the ‘Kyrie’ and ‘Gloria’ from his Mass in B minor, where they were reused.  The opening ‘Kyrie’ had the choir faltering a little.  The Chiesa Ensemble again were in superb form, led by Rebecca Struthers.

For the choir’s part, it cannot be said that intonation never wavered, but by and large they did splendidly, and communicated the majesty and drama of this great work.   The duet ‘Christe eleison’ by the two women soloists was sung with absolute unity and concord, strings and organ accompanying.

The second ‘Kyrie’ began, and continued, confidently.  The complex fugal setting of ‘Et in terra pax’ likewise was accurate, the choir displaying pleasing tone and attention to dynamics.  Here, the brass were in their element, well supported by the other players.  The highly decorated ‘Laudamus te’ was handled with aplomb by Megan Hurnard.  ‘Gratias’ from the choir was very fine.  The timpanist was able to let fly.  ‘Domine Deus’ with the tenor soloist, Ken Trass followed.  He was not as strong as the soprano with whom he shared the duet, but nevertheless, his singing was accurate and he made a pleasing sound.  A lovely flute obbligato embellished the singing.

It was good to have no break between the sections; it made sense to carry straight on, and this heightened the contrasts in tempi, orchestration and dynamics.  After singing ‘Qui tollis’ the choir at last got to sit down for the first time since the interval, during the delicious contralto solo ‘Qui sedes’, accompanied by gorgeous oboe, and the following bass aria (David Morriss): ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’, accompanied by a magnificent solo horn.  The bass voice did not come through the orchestral texture as well as the other soloists did, though there were fine notes and passages.  The intricacies of the horn part did not have difficulty in communicating.

The final ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’ was magnificent.

It seemed odd to me that the male soloists wore open-necked shirts, when the men of the choir wore bow-ties.  Women soloists take care with their dress, which could not in any way be called informal.  True, the orchestra men had open-necked shirts also, but these being black were not so obvious.  The previous evening I attended Orchestra Wellington’s fine concert.  They dress in much less formal fashion than does the NZSO, but nevertheless, the men all wore ties.  I believe it is a matter of respect to the music as well as to the audience.

Once again, St. Andrew’s proved itself an ideal venue for this type of concert.  And once again Bach proved to be the superbly inventive composer of choral music. No-one in the audience could be anything but satisfied with what they heard.  Much credit must go to Peter Walls for his direction of his forces in this dynamic and musically alive concert, that was nevertheless taxing for the choir.  Bravo, all!



Sombre Music of the Low Countries from the Bach Choir

Bach Choir of Wellington, conducted by Peter de Blois, with Douglas Mews (organ), Laura Barton (violin), Vivian Stephens (violin), Aidan Verity (viola), Lucy Gijsbers (cello), Michelle Velvin (harp), Jeremy Fitzsimons (percussion)

Music by Belgian and Dutch composers

St. Teresa’s Church, Karori

Sunday, 11 September 2016, 2pm

Most of this music made me feel low, like the countries.  Only Sweelinck (1562-1621) seemed to sparkle with life, and he was much the oldest of the composers performed, the others being all from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  I decided that I liked soulful music – but not doleful music.  After hearing two sombre works (first movement from Mahler’s 10th symphony and Berg’s violin concerto) the previous evening  from Orchestra Wellington, I was not in a receptive mood for music such as the choir sang, in a concert of over two hours’ length.

It was an ambitious programme of unfamiliar, and often difficult, works in modern idiom.  The relatively modern, large church has good acoustics, and the sound came over well, without undue reverberation from both choir and instruments.  The disadvantage was that all the performing took place in the organ gallery at the back of the church, behind the audience.  This meant we did not have the interest and stimulation of seeing the performers, which adds quite a lot to the enjoyment of music, especially when instrumentalists are involved.  Peter de Blois explained in his preliminary remarks that this was necessary because of the impossibility of moving the altar at the front of the church; thus there was not adequate space for the choir.

De Blois pointed out that the day was the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in the US, thus the first part of the concert was about death, while the second dealt with resurrection.  Images, varying from statues to flowers to skies, were shown on a screen at the front of the church, but their relationship to the music being tenuous.  I did not find them a good substitute for seeing animated performers at their tasks.

The first composer we heard was Wietse Stuurman, born 1976; his Miserere mei Deus.  This involved, in addition to the choir, organ and strings, tubular bells.  The choir made a marvellous sound, and the effect of discords in the music was clear.  The organ part had splendid tunes, with a continuous pedal note.  The bell and organ became loud and insistent, but there was little variety of tonality in the piece, because of that note and bell.  The piece was mournful.  Although the words were reasonably clear, it was good to have the Latin words and translations for the whole programme, in addition to excellent notes.  The work was well performed, but didn’t ‘grab’ me, despite some interesting shifting harmonies.

Variations on ‘Mein junges Leben hat ein End’ by Sweelinck was a bright organ interlude, despite its title, especially after the second variation when a 2-foot stop was added.  More sounds and textures were added in other variations, before a return to quiet contemplation in the last one.  This was a most satisfying performance.

The next choral piece, a seven-movement Requiem, was by Huub de Lange (born 1955) and was set for choir and string quartet.  This would not have been easy to sing, but one or two voices tended to stand out at times, and top notes were not always hit squarely.  Otherwise, the choir produced lovely velvety tone.

I could not help thinking that Mozart, Schubert, Verdi and others knew how to make a Requiem Mass that was gorgeous, even animated, as well as solemn.  This one was monotonous; it needed more changes of tonality and mood.  However, there were some excellent dynamic effects, such as a fading pianissimo at the end of the Sanctus.  It was an innovative work and the choir and quartet made a good job of it, but the minimalist influences (remarked on in the programme note for the Stuurman work) made it boring to my ear.

Even the In Paridisum had a rather slow tempo and a minor modality, as did the unusually added Te Deum, which is a hymn of praise.  Yet it had doleful intervals of diminished and augmented seconds.  Its final Sanctus revealed a full choral sound, but it was not remotely jubilant.  The varying close intervals made great demands on the singers.

Sweelinck brought back some jollity, with variations on ‘Onder een Linde groen’ (Under a green linden tree), a secular piece.  It was delightful and uplifting, played with great contrasts of stops and between runs and detached chords. Use of reed stops in the finale reiterated the melody with different sounds.

Evert van Merode (born 1980) wrote his Stabat Mater dolorosa in 2013.  The men’s sound was good, but the women’s pitch was not always accurate; it was probably difficult to maintain it in this sort of tonality.  The harp had a dramatic part to play, but it didn’t always seem to fit with the other instruments (violin and cello).  For me, the best part musically was the concluding ‘Quando corpus…’ (When my body dies, grant that my soul is given the glory of paradise).

After the interval, the music was entirely by Flor Peeters (1903-1986), a Belgian organist and composer.  I still have the programme from his visit to New Zealand in the 1970s.  The Kyrie of his Missa Festiva had the men opening in sombre tones.  Despite the good acoustics, it was a drawback to clarity that they did not all pronounce the vowels in the same way.  Some of the choir tone sounded strained; there was a lot of difficult singing.  After the Kyrie, Mews played Peeters’s chorale prelude on ‘O Gott du Frommer Gott’, with a mellow tone and mood.

The splendid tenor introits to both the Gloria and the Credo were, I suspect, sung by de Blois himself.  At last, there was a bright mood in the declamatory Gloria.  Singing in the latter part of was without instruments, and the writing was not so taxing.  It came off well, especially the jubilant ‘Amen’.  It was interesting to hear the composer’s ‘Jesu meine freude’ chorale prelude which followed on the organ, since Bach’s settings as a motet and for organ are familiar.  It was more appealing than the mass, though there was little variation of volume or tone.

The first part of the Credo was appropriately loud, while the quieter section, Et incarnatus est, sounded splendid, apart from too many misplaced s’s from the choir.  The final section of the Credo was suitably exultant.  The Sanctus began a little flat, as did the Benedictus, and both continued that way intermittently, with less clear words and vowels.  I’m sure the singers were tired by this time.  An interposed chorale prelude ‘Ach bleib’ mit deiner gnade’ was played with gorgeous flute stops, and flowed in a Bach-like way.  The programme ended with the mass’s Agnus Dei.  This made a very pleasing finish, dying away at the end.

The concert was rather too long, but a tour de force from a good choir.  However, the choice of programme was challenging for both choir and audience, and the former was not consistent in its performance.  The instrumentalists were all strong, and Douglas Mews’s organ-playing was magnificent both in solo pieces and with the choir, where he was no mere accompanist.