An evocative blend of liturgy, history, and magisterial polyphony

PALESTRINA –  Missa Papae Marcelli 

The Tudor Consort,
director, Michael Stewart

Wellington Cathedral of St Paul

3rd September 2022

For readers without a keen interest in Renaissance polyphony performance practice, let me say upfront that the Tudor Consort gave a luminous, beautifully tuned, highly polished and uplifting performance of Palestrina’s most famous mass setting, one which could easily hold its own against the many existing recordings of the piece by eminent choral ensembles. Arguably, the first challenge of performing such a well-beloved masterpiece is simply to live up to people’s memories of it; not to place unwanted obstacles on the well-worn path the audience has looked forward to treading. This, however, gives rise to a second challenge: how to make the experience of listening new, interesting, and worth showing up for on a chilly Wellington evening?  The Tudor Consort (henceforth TC) is more than capable of meeting the first challenge, and one could easily imagine the live recording of this performance taking up a place in RNZ Concert’s regular rotation. I could end this review here were it not for the much more interesting question of how Michael Stewart and his singers addressed themselves to the second challenge.

Per the concert programme, the Missa Papae Marcelli (henceforth MPM) was presented “in the form of a Mass reconstruction for the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” This practice of liturgical reconstruction, established by TC’s founding director Simon Ravens, might seem a straightforward idea enough, but in fact it raises more questions than it answers: which liturgy is to be reconstructed? How strictly? On the basis of what information? And to what artistic end?  

In the given case, one might have expected to hear a Catholic Mass as Palestrina himself would have experienced it – a literal reconstruction of the historical context from which the MPM arose.  What we got, however, was something more creative and nuanced. Michael Stewart’s programming is always thoughtful and intelligent, and here he made strategic departures from both liturgical and historical fidelity for the sake of musical interest. These included (1) the selection of Gregorian chants, (2) the inclusion of polyphonic settings of some of the chants, and (3) the voicing of the Gospel reading. Essentially, the programme presented the music of the Tridentine Mass as it might have been heard in the century before Vatican II (i.e., well after Palestrina) with a few additional flourishes that, while extra-liturgical, made sound artistic sense.  

First, the selection of chants. The liturgical chants that comprise the fabric of the Mass fall into two categories, ordinary (performed at every Mass) and proper (specific to the date in the liturgical calendar). Mass settings like Palestrina’s provide polyphonic versions of the ordinary chants (the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Santus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei), leaving space for the propers (Introit, Gradual, etc.) to be filled in as appropriate; for this Mass reconstruction, Stewart selected the chants proper to the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which falls on 8 September.  Gregorian chant itself underwent a significant “reconstruction” process in the nineteenth century, led by the monks of Solemnes Abbey in France, whose editions provide the basis of most contemporary chant performance, including this one (though many conductors, including Stewart, disregard the Solemnes rhythm markings, which are controversial). While the Solemnes editions purport to restore the chants to their “original” forms, this is precisely why they don’t reflect what Palestrina himself would have heard – since he lived in the very midst of the ongoing process of revision (“corruption”!) that the Solemnes monks would later seek to reverse.

The legend that Palestrina “saved” church polyphony from a death sentence at the Council of Trent by writing the MPM – in which the wordiest texts, those of the Gloria and Credo, are pronounced simultaneously by (almost) all the singers, making the words easy to hear – makes the juxtaposition of the Mass with the “restored” 19th-century chants particularly piquant. While the Palestrina-as-saviour story is considered apocryphal, the textual transparency of the MPM is undeniably striking, and probably does reflect the composer’s awareness of contemporary concerns about the intelligibility of liturgical texts – concerns that would also have influenced ongoing revisions to the plainchant sections of the mass. The refurbished Solemnes chants, however, are often quite complex and ornate, making few concessions to intelligibility! This complexity was underscored by the slow, careful chanting of TC’s tenors and basses during the Introit, as the choir processed to the front of the church; though monodic, the chant is not so simple that walking and singing at the same time comes easily. They got palpably livelier once they had arrived in place and had a conductor in front of them.

In a second departure from strict authenticity, Stewart followed the plainchant Introit, “Salve, Sancta Parens,” with a polyphonic setting of the same text by Adrian Willaert (1490-1562), who (as maestro di cappella at St Mark’s in Venice 1527-62) was a dominant figure in the musical landscape of Palestrina’s youth. Willaert’s motet is scored for six voices: two free-composed and the others paired off in canons, one of which paraphrases the plainchant melody. This produces the effect of a self-propelling machine in perpetual motion, as each new phrase interrupts the echo of the preceding one and sets off its own echo, which is in turn interrupted.  Although the plainchant melody – which we had just heard – serves as a cantus firmus, it is virtually indistinguishable in the complex interplay of voices, even in TC’s crisp and disciplined performance. Their ensemble singing here was spectacular; I particularly enjoyed their smooth braking at the end of the piece, with Stewart’s conducting imposing an orderly ritardando and clearly laying out the resolution of each line into the final cadence. 


By the time we got to Palestrina, then, the audience had already heard two ways in which a liturgical text could be both beautified and, to some extent, obscured by a musical setting. The comparative transparency of the MPM settings – the Kyrie and Gloria are sung back-to-back – was immediately palpable, underscored by TC’s crisp singing, clear entrances, and (in the Kyrie at least) perfectly simultaneous consonants.  These were followed by a brief Collect, then the Gradual and Alleluia chants, both gloriously melismatic, followed by the Gospel reading, also chanted in Latin (I should mention that the performance was accompanied by slides which gave the Latin text and English translation of each piece of liturgy, an excellent idea, much better than forcing people to squint at program notes, and only slightly marred by typos in the Latin).  Here we met Stewart’s third piece of artistic licence, which was to split up the Gospel reading among many (all?) of the male voices, rather than having one singer impersonate the priest.  This innovation was inspired by the form of the text, which for this Feast Day happens to be the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel – the genealogy of Jesus stretching all the way back to Abraham, a long, long series of “begat”s. Scattering these among a series of soloists, entering as it were on each other’s heels, both added textural interest and sped things up.  By breaking up the monotony of the text, it paradoxically underlined it, adding a new dimension of meaning to the text by calling our attention to the sheer number of generations that had to survive, and meetings (each a small miracle in its way) that had to occur, to get from Abraham to Jesus via King David.  As a scholar of literature, I appreciated this – but nonetheless welcomed the relief of Palestrina’s exuberant Credo setting, performed with a beautifully blended tone and perfect diction to round off the first half of the concert.


The Credo marks the end of the Mass of the Catechumens, which is followed in the Tridentine rite by the Mass of the Faithful, so this was a liturgically as well as musically appropriate place to break for a short interval before recommencing with the Offertory, this time chanted by the treble voices. The Offertory text, “Beata Es, Virgo Maria,” would return at the end of the concert in Palestrina’s glorious 8-part setting, another inspired moment of liturgical deconstruction. First, however, we had to get through the central drama of the Mass, the liturgy of the Eucharist.  The choir gave beautiful renderings of Palestrina’s Sanctus and Agnus Dei movements, with legato lines so sinuous they could plausibly pass for angelic. If I had a wish here, I’d have liked to hear the sopranos open up more – I’m a fan of the adult soprano sound in early music, a huge improvement over the children favoured by some – and similarly in the Merulo motet that duplicated the Communion chant, “Beata viscera,” later on (bookending the duplication of the Introit at the start of the programme).  Merulo, eight years younger than Palestrina, provided an interesting contrast to their older contemporary Willaert, and to Palestrina himself, but I can’t say this piece made a huge impression on me; in contrast, the choir absolutely lit up when they returned to Palestrina with the closing “Beata Es” motet. Whether this reflects my taste, or theirs, or the solemnity of the Roman liturgy, or simply the mastery of Palestrina as compared to everyone else, who can say, but the choir felt like a different instrument performing Palestrina than they did in the rest of the programme; here, they genuinely soared.  

Congratulations to the Tudor Consort on this moving and evocative concert, a compelling tribute to Palestrina as well as an intellectually and artistically coherent performance.

 

A Springful of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” music, from Orchestra Wellington

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM

Robert Schumann Dichterliebe arranged by Henrik Hellstenius
Deborah Wai Kapohe, mezzo

Robert Schumann Cello Concerto
Inbal Megiddo, cello

Felix Mendelssohn Midsummer Night Dream
Barbara Paterson, Michaela Codwgan, sopranos,
Dryw McArthur, Alex Greig and Danielle  Meldrum, actors,
Women’s voices of the Orpheus Choir.

Orchestra Wellington
Marc Taddei (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 20th August, 2022

Schumann and Mendelssohn may seem like traditional programming for an orchestral concert, but – trust Marc Taddei, – it was anything but run of the mill standard fare. This was a concert of works seldom heard or seldom heard in the form presented.

Schumann Dichterliebe, arranged by Henrik Hellstenius

It opened with Schumann’s song cycle, Dichterliebe. This, along with Schubert’s Winterreise and Die schöne Müllerin is a work that established the song cycle form as more than a collection of songs, and is a landmark of the lieder repertoire. The songs are settings of sixteen poems by Heine. Heine was some ten years older than Schumann and was already celebrated as the leading German lyric poet. Perhaps Heine’s intrinsic contradictions appealed to Schumann’s split personalities. Maybe the cunning craft of Heine’s poetry brought something out of Schumann the master miniaturist. But what we were presented with was not the well known song cycle of Schumann with its dramatic piano accompaniment, but an arrangement by the contemporary Norwegian composer,  Henrik Hellstenius.

Instead of the piano, we had a large orchestra with even an exotic ophicleide, a keyed brass instrument.  Its deep voice was a welcome addition to the brass section. The piece started with a bell-like sound produced by violin and flute. The piano part is deconstructed right through the songs into a kaleidoscope of colourful orchestral sounds. Wai Kapohe sang not as the usual image of a classical lieder singer, but like a jazz singer, or more like a chanteuse, using a microphone, and despite the vast auditorium of the Michael Fowler Centre, she gave the impression of singing intimately for every person of the large audience. Her beautiful warm voice touched every one.

The  settings of sixteen of Heine’s poems are about love,  flowers, sorrow and pain, dream, memory of a kiss, the Cathetral of Cologne, a lark’s song of longing, a broken heart, fairy tale, and death.. The arrangement of Hellstenius turned Schumann’s music into a haunting post-modern musical experience. It is not a matter of being better than Schumann, bringing Schumann up to date; it is about looking at Schumann’s music through a contemporary lens, hearing it as eternally meaningful music.

Schumann Cello Concerto

The song cycle was followed by Schumann’s last orchestral work, his cello concerto, which he completed two weeks before he attempted suicide, and never had the opportunity of hearing it performed. It is a remarkable work, the first ‘romantic’ concerto written for the cello, a world away from preceding works for the cello, the cello concertos of Haydn and Boccherini.  The concerto starts with three chords played by the strings then the cello takes over with a beautiful melody, which Inbal Megiddo played with a ravishing sound. This set the tone of the whole work. The piece is episodic, a mark of much of Schumann’s work, short contrasting themes make up the building blocks of the overall piece, slow melodic sections interspersed with dramatic virtuoso passages.

The themes are like his songs, melodious. engaging.  The three movements, a lyrical yet dramatic first movement,  a slow second movement and a lively, energetic final movement, are connected by brief bridging sections. A song like quality pervades the work. Inbal Megiddo gave this concerto a beautiful, convincing reading. Acknowledging the warm applause, she played as an encore the Gigue from Bach’s Cello Suite No.1. She played it with a scintillating light touch. It was an appropriate bridge to the final item on the programme.

Mendelssohn A  Midsummer Night Dream

Mendelssohn wrote the overture to Midsummer Night Dream for the house concerts in his family’s lavish home, when he was a boy of seventeen and this it stayed in the popular repertoire ever since. It is a scintillating piece of music, but the Incidental Music was written much later, at the instigation of Frederick William IV, King of Prussia, a music lover. Mendelssohn expanded the Overture into a forty-five minute suit exploring scenes from the play, that included the among its thirteen movements, the sprightly goblin-like Scherzo, the light jolly, otherworldly song with the choir, the dreamy Nocturne with its solo horn, the stately Wedding March, played at innumerable weddings since its first performance, and the foot stomping Dance of the Clown. The use of three actors as narrator reading out the lines from the play, and two solo sopranos singing some of the choral numbers greatly enhanced the music.

Hearing the whole Incidental Music to Midsummer Night Dream was a joyous experience. But it was more than that, it was an insight into Romanticism in music, fairies, dreams, magic, ingredients of romantic music and literature, that echoed the music of Schumann and other romantic composers.

Orchestra Wellington and Marc Taddei offered, as usual. an imaginative programme,  played well, with understanding, which amounted to more than the sum total of the works performed. It captured the spirit of an era, with contemporary commentary on it by the orchestral arrangement of the Schumann songs by Henrik Hellstenius

Rhapsody and Rapture

Orchestra Wellington presents: RHAPSODY
BRAHMS – Alto Rhapsody
Contralto: Kristin Darragh
Male chorus Orpheus Choir
CLARA SCHUMANN – Piano Concerto in A minor
Piano: Jian Liu
ROBERT SCHUMANN – Symphony No 4 in D minor, Op. 120
Conductor: Marc Taddei
Orchestra Wellington

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 11th June, 2022

‘It’s all about Clara Schumann,’ said Marc Taddei, Orchestra Wellington’s conductor.

Brahms wrote his Alto Rhapsody for the wedding of Clara’s third daughter, Julie, in 1869. The second work on the programme was written by Clara Weick, as she then was, between the ages of 13 and 15. And Robert Schumann’s Symphony No 4, written in the first rapturous year of their marriage, has the word ‘Clara’ musically encoded throughout.

One thinks of Brahms as having always been middle-aged. I blame record sleeves for reproducing those very bearded photos from his fifties and early sixties – but he was an athletic, handsome, blond twenty-year-old when he first met the Schumanns. He was still a handsome man of 36, blond and beardless, when he wrote the Alto Rhapsody.

The programme notes described the work as ‘a rather odd wedding present’. Odd indeed – it seems to be full of the pain Brahms felt on hearing of Julie’s forthcoming wedding. At the
age of 26 he had been engaged to Agathe von Siebold, but the engagement was broken off. Ten years later he began to fall in love with Julie Schumann, then aged 24, but did not declare himself. When the news of her engagement arrived, he wrote the Alto Rhapsody.

The work is a setting of part of a long poem by Goethe, ‘Harzreise im Winter’, from his Sturm und Drang period, about the loneliness of a man climbing in the Harz mountains in winter. ‘Who heals the pains of one for whom balm has turned to poison?’, it begins. The answer
seems to be: ‘No one. Get over it. Music helps.’

The sombre opening chords are from the lower brass; then the texture thickens. The first two stanzas are in C minor, with a shift to C major in the third. Kristen Darragh’s first entry imitated the dark sound of the lower strings. Although the programme described her as a contralto, the biographical note called her a mezzo-soprano. She has qualities of both: a very beautiful bright higher register, with lots of power lower down. The orchestra provided rhapsodic support. The male chorus (TTBB) was provided by about 30 men of the Orpheus Choir, singing sludgy German that sometimes dragged the tempo. They did rather better further on when they got to the German Requiem-like harmonies.

The Alto Rhapsody is recorded pretty often. Wikipedia lists 19 recordings between 1945 and 2012, with two apiece by Kathleen Ferrier and Janet Baker. I first heard the Janet Baker recording with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Adrian Boult, and there was something of Janet Baker’s approach in Kristen Darragh’s performance, though I found Darragh’s voice beautiful in every register, from her bottom B to her high G flat. But the Alto  Rhapsody is not performed in concert very often, presumably because of the extra cost of the male choir for only a few pages of music. The recordings vary in length from 11 minutes 15 seconds (a French recording) to over 16 minutes (Christa Ludwig with the Vienna Philharmonic under Karl Böhm).

Taddei was pretty brisk, coming in at 12 minutes, but the tempi seemed well judged to me. The soloist was never left hanging out to dry, and the emotional depth was quite deep enough without any wallowing. There were many lovely moments, such as the soprano over pizzicato lower strings in the third stanza, a clarinet solo or two (Nick Walshe), the always-gorgeous horns, and the final words from the chorus, ‘sein Herz’ (his heart), which sounded like a final Amen.

Young Clara Wieck was already an accomplished piano soloist and had performed several times with the Gewandhaus Orchestra by the time she started writing this piano concerto. It is a remarkably mature and accomplished work. Clara’s bossy piano-teacher father tried to limit her composing because he thought it would get in the way of her playing. Robert Schumann, whom she met at one of her first recitals (she was 9, he was 18), encouraged it. Writers and critics have long thought that Robert influenced Clara. But the US musicologist, Nancy Reich, who examined the manuscripts of both Schumanns and wrote an acclaimed biography of Clara (Clara Schumann, the artist and the woman, OUP, 1989), said the boot was on the other foot. Clara was a very significant contributor to Robert’s compositions, said Reich; sometimes a co-composer. On the strength of this piano concerto she was clearly capable of it.

From the start, this is a confident work. Clara had already played some Chopin polonaises, and it shows in the writing. (For his part, Chopin heard her play, aged 18, and told Liszt all about her.) Her orchestral writing here is assured and appealing, and the piano writing is glorious, both virtuosic and lyrical. Jian Liu did it full justice, with crisp, precise playing and gorgeous, subtle gradations of colour. Taddei followed Liu’s tempi, and the orchestra played with sensitivity, matching his palette of bright and dark colours. In the second movement the stage lights came down, leaving only the pianist and the first desk of the cello section lit. The piano plays an extended solo passage, and finally the principal cello (Jane Young) enters. There is a passionate duet; then the cello withdraws. The third movement is also attacca, beginning with a little trumpet fanfare plus timpani, then a big string sound and full lower brass, a horn solo (Shadley van Wyk and Ed Allen), and an echo from bassoon (Preman Tilson). The trumpets introduce a Chopin-esque passage (minus pathos), just lots and lots of notes up and down the keyboard with tempo changes. Jian Liu turned on a dime, with Taddei and the orchestra always keeping in touch.

The audience went wild. They obviously love Jian Liu (who doesn’t?) and they were warm in their applause for Jane Young too. After being called back twice, Jian Liu came back a third time and played an encore, a pleasant nocturne by … Clara Schumann.

Only one work after the interval, Robert Schumann’s well-known Fourth Symphony, written in the rapturous first year of their marriage. Marc Taddei, obviously a great favourite of this large subscriber audience, spent some time explaining how Clara’s name (C B A G# A) appears in every movement, sometimes inverted. Examples were provided on the spot by the cello section, Concertmaster Amalia Hall, the first violins, the trombones, and the horns. The audience loved it.

‘This is one of the most radical symphonies of the nineteenth century,‘ he told them (because each movement flows straight into the next). And then, ‘It is a privilege to serve you.’ The audience purred with pleasure.

And off they went.

Schumann’s Fourth is an attractive work, bathed in sunshine. The orchestra played it well, from the confident opening to the three big final chords. The cellos always made a lovely sound; the string sound was warm and the upper brass bright and clean. Amalia Hall’s ‘filigree’ version of the Clara motif was lyrical and beautiful. The third movement burst open, a fast and furious scherzo, with exquisite violin playing. The horns sang the Clara theme; then the trio section followed with the first violins playing the filigree Clara motif. The fourth movement was all sunshine and daisies, with tidy tempo changes, before the final accelerando to the finish. Rapturous applause.

“Packed (and) buzzing” audience acclaim Wellington Chamber Orchestra’s 50th Anniversary Concert

Wellington Chamber Orchestra
Rachel Hyde (conductor)
The 50th Anniversary Concert

DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH – Festive Overture Op.96
GARETH FARR Terra Incognita (2008)
GUSTAV HOLST – The Planets  Op.32

Alan Gibbs Centre, Wellington College

Saturday 28th May, 2022

The Alan Gibbs Centre was packed to the gills, and buzzing with celebratory vibes, for this ambitious concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of the WCO. The stage as well was crowded and festive, with past members of the Orchestra making a return to its ranks for this gala programme. In keeping with the mood and the occasion, the programme opened with Shostakovich’s Festive Overture (Op. 96). Written in 1954 for the 37th anniversary of the October Revolution, this party of a piece contains no hint of the shadows and ironies that mark the composer’s more contemplative works – likely because he was given no time to contemplate it: the overture was commissioned at the last minute by the Bolshoi Theatre and had to be ready in three days, with couriers whisking each freshly-completed page off to the theatre to be copied for parts.  The piece opens with an arresting fanfare whose grandeur was slightly blunted by the fact that two of the WCO’s brass players had had to be replaced that very morning due to untimely Covid infections. Here and elsewhere, the brass section struggled heroically on, but with a certain lack of cohesion that reflected the ad-hoc nature of the ensemble. Elsewhere, the effects of Covid (which disrupted the personnel, rehearsal schedule, and timing of the concert itself) were felt more occasionally, with the most supple and resilient ensemble playing coming from the woodwinds.  Rachel Hyde’s crisp, clear conducting was a pleasure to watch, and yielded its best results in the pizzicato section of the work, where a crackling energy and rhythm drove the music forward.

Next up was Gareth Farr’s Terra Incognita (2008), written after a sojourn in Antarctica. Its libretto, by Paul Horan, incorporates excerpts from the diaries of Robert Falcon Scott and Frank Debenham (a scientist with Scott’s expedition), as well as from Tennyson’s Ulysses (Scott’s favourite poem, apparently) and Horan’s own “poetic” reflections on the breaking up of the Larsen B ice shelf. The mood thus runs the gamut from awestruck (“This earth was never ours”) to heroic (“Come, my friends….smite/The sounding furrows”) to elegiac (“Goodbye Larsen B”), as the ice first dwarfs, then kills men, only to be ultimately killed by them. Choristers made up from many Wellington choirs, including The Glamaphones, Cantoris, Nota Bene, Orpheus and others, singing in long static phrases evoked a frozen landscape and acted as a kind of Greek chorus of the “transient strangers” referenced by Debenham, “stunned and stunted” by the mystique of the ice. The foreground characters – Scott, Debenham, and the poems’ lyric speakers – were voiced by Samuel McKeever in a deep, imposing bass.  The flat acoustics of the Gibbs Center, especially when filled with people bundled up in winter layers, did the singers no favours, alas. Nonetheless McKeever’s “Great God! This is an awful place” in the sixth movement – drawn from Scott’s diary – penetrated to the back of the hall, a grim highlight of the sung text.

The piece followed the overall form of a song cycle, without pauses between movements, the textures in the orchestra reflecting and co-creating the mood of each text. A hushed opening movement, “This earth was never ours,” began with glass chimes over tremulous (and slightly out of tune) pianissimo strings, a stylised evocation of cold and cracking ice, gradually joined by the woodwinds and then by the choir on its long, “frozen” chords. This gave way to the contrasting second movement, “Come, my friends,” in which the heroic words of Ulysses, sung by McKeever, were chased about by striving, strenuously rhythmic accompaniment from the orchestra, led by the strings. This in turn yielded to another “frozen” choral movement, “I never knew you” (to an original text by Horan), followed by a very cinematic setting of text from Scott’s diary, “Night light,” which McKeever managed to make genuinely songlike. The fifth movement, “Quiet land,” was heralded (counterintuitively) by a snare drum, with the woodwinds and percussion underpinning a restless setting of Debenham’s text (“Ever moving…ceaselessly circling”), joined by the strings and choir at its climax (“And above all, the dream is here”). A slow, foreboding sixth movement (“Eternal Silence”) juxtaposed Scott’s anguished words with a hushed but strenuous discord in the orchestra and choir, produced by asking each chorister to sing their highest comfortable note. If the mood here recalled Penderecki’s famous Threnody, the seventh and final movement, “Goodbye Larsen B” – elegiac in tone, with lush harmonies in the orchestra – was closer to Górecki. The circular structure that often distinguishes Farr’s works was evident here only in the return of the glass chimes, which seemed slightly incongruous given the narrative of the work, documenting the destruction of the icy wilderness they had evoked at the start. McKeever’s diction, excellent throughout, made it impossible to hide from the rather pedestrian character of the lyrics in this final song. His heroic performance was warmly applauded.

After an intermission, players and audience returned for Holst’s Planets. Covid notwithstanding, the number of musicians onstage amply bore out this work’s generic label, “Suite for Large Orchestra.”  As Holst fans know, the piece’s seven movements proceed in astrological rather than astronomical order: Mars first, then Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. (Earth doesn’t get a look-in, but was, one supposes, indirectly represented by Farr’s Terra Incognita in the first half.) “Mars, the Bringer of War,” a regulation banger in 5/4 time, was beautifully shaped by Rachel Hyde’s eloquent conducting and went with a swing. In contrast, “Venus, the Bringer of Peace” sounded initially uncertain, with some hesitant entrances and wobbly tuning. As sometimes happens, a collective loss of confidence seemed to set in, infecting each soloist in turn. On the other hand, in tutti passages, especially when playing driving rhythms or conveying a sense of sweeping passion, the orchestra made a magnificently lustrous sound. One might say that they felt more at home in war than in peace….a tempting metaphor for human nature.

“Mercury, the Winged Messenger” featured some lovely woodwind duets and an ethereal “celesta” contribution from the always excellent Heather Easting on an electric keyboard which doubled as the (sadly inaudible against a full orchestra playing ffff) “organ” later on. These were the moments where the triple subdivision of the beat in this movement felt most comfortable; elsewhere, the players could perhaps have used more help in navigating it. The problem of keeping stringed instruments in tune in an increasingly warm and humid hall also asserted itself here; a pause between movements to re-tune didn’t seem to help much.  However, the alternately rollicking and majestic “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity,” with its maestoso middle section featuring the famous tune later adapted into “I Vow to Thee, My Country,” went with a bang, followed by the colder and more forbidding “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age,” with its relentless “tick-tock” theme and (slightly unsteady) plodding brass. “Uranus, the Magician” is built on a tension between the rather portentous four-note theme in the brass (later picked up by other instruments) and the mischievous, stomping dance led by a trio of bassoons. It feels rather like a circus parade until the sudden drop in tempo and dynamic fatally interrupts it, preparing the ground for the final movement, “Neptune, the Mystic.”  Some lovely playing from the woodwinds opened this disorienting, genuinely mystical movement, which closed on a hidden chorus of treble voices (supplied by the sopranos and altos of the choir seen earlier in Terra Incognita). 

In a nice touch from a historical perspective, the chorus was conducted by Robert Oliver, not only a veteran singer and choral conductor himself but also the inaugural conductor (1972-74) of the WCO itself.  This 50th anniversary concert thus concluded, fittingly, with two conductors, bookends as it were to the orchestra’s leadership from its earliest beginnings to the present.  This poetic conclusion was not lost on the enthusiastic audience, which rose to its feet to applaud the orchestra as much for its performance of this epic programme as for its half-century of service to the Wellington music scene. A good time having been had by all, it remained only to secure a cup of tea and congratulate the performers.  Felicitations to the WCO on its persistence through five decades of music and two years of Covid to bring this programme to us all.

 

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.

Brahms’ Schicksalslied gives its name to a programme of uplifting music from the NZSO

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:
SONG OF DESTINY

VERDI – Overture Nabucco
BRAHMS – Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny) Op.54
DVORAK – Symphony No. 8 in G Major Op.88

James Judd (conductor)
Voices New Zealand Choir
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Thursday, 25th November, 2021

Welcome back! We have been starved of orchestral concerts for the last three months. It was a delight to have a full symphony orchestra on the stage, albeit with the players discreetly separated. A very special welcome back was due to James Judd, who was principal conductor of the NZSO for some eight years, and who has been closely associated with the orchestra ever since. And a great thank you was due to the management of the orchestra who organised this series of four concerts for limited audiences in the midst of the Covid epidemic, over four days, and in exceptionally difficult circumstances.

The orchestra and Voices New Zealand were scheduled to perform Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, a colossal, taxing work, but under the circumstances, everyone had to settle for a programme featuring a more seldom-heard work, Brahms’ Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny), as part of a line-up of uplifting music, starting with Verdi’s Overture Nabucco, and ending with Dvorak’s joyous Symphony No. 8.

Verdi – Overture Nabucco
Verdi’s Nabucco was his first major operatic success. Its simple, singable melodies are immediately captivating. The overture uses themes from arias and choruses from the opera, and it is hard to resist the temptation to sing along with them! Nabucco, by Temistocle Solera, which La Scala impresario  Bartolomeo Merelli gave to Verdi to read, was probably not much of a play (and historically inaccurate to boot), but the “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” is memorable, and was used separately on many occasions, including at Verdi’s own funeral. James Judd and the orchestra gave the Overture an energetic yet lyrical reading, notable for the beautiful brass ensemble, and the strong rhythmic drive of the strings.

Brahms – Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny) Op.54
Brahms’ Schicksalslied is overshadowed in the repertoire by his longer vocal works of the period, the Alto Rhapsody and the German Requiem. Schicksalslied is a shorter work, but it is of equal note. It is a setting by the poet Friedrich Hölderin, a friend and contemporary of Goethe and Schiller, It is a poem that Brahms found particularly meaningful.

The work begins with an ethereal orchestral passage, then joined by the choir, first by the sopranos, then by the rest of the voices. The music is deeply rooted in the Lutheran tradition, influenced by Bach Chorales that Brahms had studied. The music is typically Brahms, self-effacing, and with no scintillating passages. The melodies grow organically from the rich harmonic groundwork. The first part of the work reflects Hölderin’s words:  “Joyful their soul / And their heavenly vision” – but this is followed by a tempestuous section: “To us is allotted / No restful haven to find; / They falter, they perish / Poor suffering mortals….”

Brahms, however, didn’t want to end the work on a tragic and depressing note, and repeated the opening section in a different key, while still keeping its tranquil mood, It was wonderful to hear this profound and seldom-performed work sung by an outstanding choir, New Zealand Voices.

Dvorák – Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Op. 88
Dvorák wanted this symphony to be “different from all the other symphonies, with individual thoughts worked out in a new way”. The Eighth Symphony is cheerful and lyrical, and draws its inspiration more from the Bohemian folk music that Dvorák loved – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symphony_No._8_(Dvo%C5%99%C3%A1k)  It is an endearing work full of joyful melodies, and the orchestra entered into the joyous spirit of the work. There was a lot of scope for the various sections of the orchestra to shine – the flutes and clarinets in the charming Adagio, the strings in the graceful Allegretto gracioso third movement. The performance highlighted the outstanding qualities of the orchestra, whose individual members seemed to play with freedom and abandon, the conductor himself appearing to float and dance with the music.

This seemed to be a reflection of the bond between James Judd and his musicians, a bond of mutual respect – Judd complimented the orchestra,  and also the audience for being there, encouraging people to applaud between movements if they saw fit – and so they did! Though audience numbers were limited to 400, and people were scattered far and distant throughout the auditorium, those present made a lot of noise showing their appreciation.

The audience was rewarded at the end with an enthusiastic rendering of Dvorák’s Slavonic Dance No.1 Op.46. The small number of people in the hall were sufficient to enhance the reverberating acoustics of the Michael Fowler Centre, which brought out the special qualities of the ensemble. In brief, a superb concert, leaving people who were there in a happy mood!

Transcending the Great Schism: Divine Orthodox Music at the Anglican Cathedral – from the Tudor Consort

ICONIC
The Tudor Consort
Michael Stewart, director
With Andrew Joyce (cello soloist)

Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul

Saturday 24 July  (rescheduled from 26 June)  2021

Review posted 5th November 2021

What? A review of a concert that happened all the way back in July?? Appearing on Middle C in November???

Yes, the bad news is that your faithful reviewer overcommitted herself and failed to review this concert in a timely fashion.  The good news is that this luminous programme by the Tudor Concert is almost as fresh in my memory now as it was in late July, where it formed a highlight of the Wellington choral calendar.  The even better news is that The Tudor Consort has another concert coming up THIS VERY SATURDAY, November 6, so if you missed their foray into Russian Orthodox music — or are simply ready for their next outing — you can satisfy your appetite for their ethereal, impeccably tuned sound this weekend. (Tickets are available at their website: https://www.tudor-consort.org.nz/)

Full disclosure: I arrived at the concert with a vested interest of sorts, having consulted for the choir on the finer points of Church Slavonic pronunciation.  Let me therefore reassure readers that the choir’s Slavonic pronunciation — albeit of no great concern to anyone but myself — was excellent, with only one or two tell-tale “soft” Ls where “hard” Ls should have been.

On to the main event — the music!  The choir created a properly solemn and devotional atmosphere from the outset, by beginning with the ritually appropriate opening exclamation, glorifying the Trinity, shared between priest (bass) and deacon (tenor), and responded to by the choir with the “Amin'” that begins the actual published score of Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil (Op. 37)  Coming at the beginning of the concert, this had the effect of an invocation, calling on the audience to attend to the music as sacred, not merely aesthetically pleasing.  Other audience members I spoke to shared my impression that this actually did deepen their focus on the music. Of course, hearing sacred music in a sacred space also contributes to the sense of atmosphere that the composers strove to create.

The choir continued with the two opening movements of the Vigil: Priidite, poklonimsia (Come, Let Us Worship) and Blagoslovi, dushe moya, Gospoda (Bless the Lord, O My Soul). These were taken a touch faster than I would have done them — it is quite tricky to give Rachmaninoff’s music time enough to breathe without letting it stretch so far that it attenuates.  (Robert Shaw’s much-admired 1990 recording, which introduced the Vigil to Western audiences, leans too far in the latter direction in my opinion.)  Apart from musical considerations, the music is physically challenging to sing and the singers, as well as the music, need time to breathe — so that the tempo is always, in some sense, a contest for oxygen between the score and its performers.  In conclusion, there is much to balance!  The Priidite lost a little of its majesty at the faster tempo, but this was compensated for by the choir’s meticulous attention to tuning and dynamics — the latter being awe-inspiring at any speed. In the Blagoslovi, the alto soloist seemed to want to move more quickly than the choir; an effect that was not entirely out of place with the mood of this movement as a whole, in which the alto soloist represents the earthly, restless and passionate voice of humanity framed by a celestial choir of sopranos, tenors, and the de rigueur Russian low basses, moving in a measured homophony above and below. The soloist, Anna-Maria Kostina, brought a suitably dark, embodied sound to her melodic line, based on the traditional Orthodox chant for this psalm, while the sopranos and male voices provided a transparent, ethereal harmonic backdrop.  The basses nailed their final low “C” (that’s the one two ledger lines below the stave, for those keeping score) to thrilling effect.

The stellar work from the bass section continued in John Tavener’s Song for Athene, where the basses have to maintain a solid drone on two Fs an octave apart for the entire duration of the piece — over 6 minutes. Incredibly difficult to do without wavering or passing out! This drone is one of two elements that can make or break the piece; the other is the rising and falling scales on “Alleluia” which must be justly tuned to the drone. Tuning is where the Tudor Consort shines brightest, and they absolutely hit this piece for six — anyone in the audience hearing it for the first time must surely have felt goosebumps as each new harmony was lifted out and presented clearly to our ears, the dynamics swelling from pp to ff to thrilling effect (in my notes I just have the word “DYNAMICS” in all caps with two happy faces next to it). Famously performed at Princess Diana’s funeral, this is probably Tavener’s best-known composition, but I haven’t heard a better performance of it than the one the Tudor Consort gave here.

Next up were two more obscure works by Arvo Pärt and Georgii Sviridov, respectively.  Pärt’s austere Summa (1977) — a setting of the Credo text in Latin — was sung by a smaller group drawn from the full choir.  This work also exists in an arrangement for strings, and I’m inclined to think its minimalism works better in that format; the music doesn’t seem to correspond to the text in any way, and I found the lack of correspondence somewhat distracting. The repetitious, episodic phrasing sounds weirdly inexpressive in the human voice, especially given a text as narrative as the Credo. Despite an excellent performance, this piece didn’t move from the “competent” into the “transcendent” column for me.  Sviridov’s Trisagion (“Holy God”/Svyatyi Bozhe), from his collection Hymns and Prayers (1980-97), was of greater interest.

Sviridov, a quintessentially Soviet composer strongly influenced by Shostakovich, composed primarily choral music but for political reasons could not write sacred music for most of his life. Nonetheless, Orthodox liturgical singing was a crucial source of inspiration for him — something critics have been able to discuss and analyse freely only since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 — and the post-Soviet resurgence of the Russian Orthodox Church allowed him, finally, to compose explicitly in the tradition that had inspired him for so long. The Hymns and Prayers thus stand in a kind of bookend relationship to Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil (1915): one the last gasp of the Russian choral Golden Age before the Revolution, the other groping for reconnection to that severed tradition after a 75-year detour.  One cannot, of course, compare them: while Orthodox music is generally more homophonic than Western sacred music, Rachmaninoff’s choral writing is almost orchestral in its assignment of different roles and colors to different voice parts, and he uses polyphony to create narrative movement, often almost seeming to “translate” the text into musical language (in a completely different way from the word-painting of a Weelkes or a Monteverdi; Rachmaninoff depicts the mood of the text rather than concrete images). The Sviridov settings, on the other hand, are purely chordal; one feels they could be transposed up or down to suit whatever group of voices (women, men, children, etc.) one might have on hand.  The effect lies in the transparency of the harmony, the wide diapason (from angelic thirds in the upper soprano range to rumbly low Cs in the basses) and in the dynamics, all fully animated by the Tudor Consort both here and in the “Come Let Us Worship” movement, which they performed in the second half.

Though enjoyable, Sviridov’s Trisagion felt mostly valuable as an introduction to the text (in Slavonic, “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us”) much more dramatically set by John Tavener in the piece that closed the first half, Svyati (1995). Almost seven times longer than the Sviridov setting, Tavener’s composition incorporates a solo cello (the incomparable Andrew Joyce) in the role of priest or cantor, playing a molto rubato, passionate but austere chant-like solo line over (yes) a bass drone on a low E. The rest of the choir gradually fills in, moving from a “tender, radiant” pianissimo to a “strong, but pleading” forte in 12 parts. I have Opinions about this piece and they did not always coincide with the performers’; Joyce added portamento touches to the cello line that felt a bit too Western-Romantic to me (Tavener notes that the cello should be “played without any sentiment of a Western character”), and some of the moving parts felt a bit lost in the vast space of the Cathedral. However, the performance was very effective and the ending in particular — with the cello playing impossibly high harmonics and the choir singing pianissimo — was absolutely ravishing.

The second half of the concert alternated bits and pieces from Rachmaninoff’s Vigil (Op. 37) and Liturgy (Op. 31) with further entries from Sviridov, Pärt, and Tavener. I’ve already mentioned the Sviridov “Come Let Us Worship” which opened this part of the program. This was followed by two hymns to the Virgin Mary, by Pärt and Rachmaninoff. The Pärt setting was unexpectedly fast, with something of the quality of a Christmas carol sung under one’s window by a group of singers trying to keep warm. In complete contrast, the Rachmaninoff setting (from the Vigil) approached the text with a gentle reverence much more typical of Orthodox treatments of this “feminine” hymn, but swelling to a majestic ff for the high notes on the final “Rejoice” before pulling back to a more lullaby-like pp for the final phrase.  Next came one more movement from the Vigil, “Kvalite” (“Praise the name of the Lord”): here as elsewhere, I felt the tempo was a little rushed, and this was the only time in the programme where I felt the sopranos were a little overtaxed, with fast-moving forte high notes in three-way divisi, but really it seems churlish to say so given how angelic they sounded for 99% of the concert.

A return to the Virgin Mary theme with Tavener’s Hymn to the Mother of God (this one sans bass drone, which must have delighted the basses, but the trademark dramatic dynamics and stained-glass harmonies were in full evidence) was followed by something completely unexpected: a Pärt setting of a Gospel text, The Woman with the Alabaster Box (1997; text from Mt. 26:6-13). I had never heard this before and found it very interesting. Unlike the other Pärt works on the program, this one seemed closely attentive to narrative structure, moving in three sections; first, the opening story about the woman’s actions, carried mostly by women’s voices; second, the discussion between Jesus and the disciples about it, carried mostly by men’s voices with the basses voicing Jesus, touching off isolated syllables like phosphorescent traces in the upper voices; and third, the “Verily I say…” peroration, given by the full choir in stately descending chords.  I don’t know that this was necessarily my favourite piece from the second half, but it was the most surprising and made me want to take a closer look at Pärt’s many settings of Gospel texts (I had only been familiar with his Passio previously).

Finally, two movements from Rachmaninoff’s Liturgy of St John Chrysostom rounded out the program.  The Liturgy feels more domestic to me than the Vigil and in that sense these felt slightly anticlimactic (and the Russian in me felt mildly scandalized that singers were allowed to take breaths in between phrases — totally normal in Western singing but strongly discouraged on the other side of the Great Schism!).  The “Tebe poem” (To Thee We Sing) is a gorgeous, hushed wave of choral sound from which emerges a soprano soloist (name not listed, alas) somewhat like a mermaid, momentarily embodying the prayers of the masses. Michael Stewart enhanced this effect by having the choir hum rather than sing under the solo line. A small disagreement over timing saw the soloist reach the finish line ahead of the choir.  The concert closed on the Cherubic Hymn from the same work, which performs the opposite trick; instead of a soprano voice arising from the harmonies created by the choir, here the harmonies gradually unfold from a single unison “D” in the upper voices, which unfurls through cascading downward scales in the second soprano and alto parts until the tenors and, finally, the basses are swept into the harmony.  At the end, everyone stays in, but the scales rise again until the sopranos are back on their original “D.”  In a way, it tells the whole story of sacred music — from monody all the way to jubilant 9-part harmony with operatic-sounding sopranos and back again. In that sense, it formed a fitting capstone to a lovely concert.  Everyone I spoke to afterward felt, with me, that we had been treated to a very distinguished example of what a concert of sacred music in a sacred space can be.

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
“I WAS GLAD”

SARAH HOPKINS – Past Life Melodies
HUBERT PARRY – “I Was Glad”
JAMES MacMILLAN – A New Song
ERIC WHITACRE – Lux Arumque / Little Birds
CHRIS ARTLEY – I Will Lift up Mine Eyes
KAROL SZYMANOWSKI – Stabat Mater

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!

Spacious, enraptured, beautiful – Wellington Chamber Orchestra with Baroque Voices and Nota Bene

MARIA GRENFELL – River, Mountain, Sky
ELGAR – Variations on an original theme – “Enigma”
VAUGHAN WILLIAMS – Five Mystical Songs / Serenade to Music

Wellington Chamber Orchestra with Baroque Voices and Nota Bene
Will King (baritone)
Ewan Clark (conductor)

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

Sunday 4th July 2021

For as long as I can remember, Wellington Chamber Orchestra has been a player-run orchestra which engages conductors by the concert.  This, I suppose, has some advantages. It gives the orchestra maximum freedom and minimum financial commitments. But it also tries to provide solo opportunities for young musicians, and given the inevitable coming and going of people from one concert to the next, the result must be a certain unevenness.

After today’s concert, I have a suggestion to make to WCO’s player managers. Hire Ewan Clark, and extract a two-year programme from him – and you will be going places, I guarantee it. Continuity, artistic vision, and stability have a lot to recommend them.

Ewan Clark is a composer and conductor as well as a trombonist. He has been conducting since he was a music student at Victoria University, nearly 20 years ago. Since then he has studied composition for screen at the Royal College of Music (MMus) and he also has a PhD from Victoria University. For years he worked mostly as a film composer, and his most recent score, for The Turn of the Screw (2020), has already won two awards at international film festivals.

This concert demonstrated what WCO is capable of under a talented conductor, with the support of excellent friends (in this case singers from Baroque Voices and Nota Bene, together with the phenomenal young baritone Will King).

The programme, as first glance, was not exceptionally interesting. Elgar’s Enigma Variations, Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs and Serenade to Music – all agreeable old war-horses – plus a short work by Australian/New Zealand composer Maria Grenfell to open the concert. Apart from the Grenfell work, it wasn’t interesting at all, in the sense of ‘I wonder what will happen next’, but it was very pleasurable. And there were surprises.

Maria Grenfell now lives in Tasmania, but she studied composition in Christchurch before going to Eastman in the US for her Masters, and UCLA for her doctorate. She tells us that she works from ‘poetic, literary, and visual sources’ as well as ‘non-Western music and literature’.  I discerned none of this in River, Mountain, Sky, which was commissioned for Tasmania’s bicentenary in 2004, but it was a delightful work nonetheless, with a clear programme and much to interest the ear. The first section features birdsong sounds from flutes and other woodwind, with first the timpani, then the horns suggesting spaciousness.  Sustained chords painted in a landscape of mountains and plains; recalling first Sibelius in the writing for the horns, then a dissolve into Vaughan Williams. The mountains section built in slow waves of sound, accented by unmuted trumpets and the harp (Anne-Gaelle Ausseil). I was sitting upstairs, and the harp was often overwhelmed by the timpani – perhaps an effect of the gallery? There was some lovely clarinet playing on the way to the sunset crescendo, and then the night sounds – oboe, the sussurations of the higher strings, muted trumpets, another lovely harp passage, and then an undertone of horns with flute, trumpet, and harp to suggest the starry night. A lovely work, I thought.

Next, Elgar’s Enigma Variations. It demands a large orchestra, and bristles with solos, made even harder because everyone in the audience can sing or whistle the tunes. And the playing was patchy.  The upper strings were considerably weaker than the lower strings, with uneasy tuning and a general air of tentativeness that marred the opening of Variation I. But the back of the orchestra rose to the many challenges that Elgar gave them, and the winds played beautifully, with some superb oboe solos and secure flutes and clarinets. I have to say, though, that the horns were terrific. They and the trombones get a lot of work; whilst the trombones were always enthusiastic but not necessarily delicate, the horns were tender as well as bold. By the time they got to the crescendo in Variation IV, the orchestra was making a big, exciting sound. The lower brass were great in Variation VII, and there was terrific wind playing in VIII after the lovely oboe solo, with sensitive piccolo and flute. Nimrod crept out of VIII as intended but although the lower strings played as one, the upper strings sounded uncomfortable and out of tune. Never mind! Here come the horns, winds, and finally the trumpets. Variation X was a curate’s egg, but one with a nice bassoon solo. Variation XI showed off the brass to good effect. By the time we reached Variation XIV the orchestra sensed the end was in sight. They built well to a splendid Elgarian crescendo, with a few rough edges.

The choir came on stage for the second half of the concert, which began with Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs. The soloist was Will King, who was an Emerging Artist with NZ Opera in 2019, and is supported by the Malvina Major Foundation. He has already sung Orfeo (Monteverdi) and Count Almaviva (Marriage of Figaro), along with Sam in Gareth Farr’s opera The Bone Feeder for NZ Opera. He has performed Schubert’s Winterreise, Schumann’s Dichterliebe, and Brahms’s Vier Ernste Gesänge. Later this year, he will understudy Orpheus in the NZ Opera production of Orfeo et Euridice.  When he won the Wellington Aria in 2018, Richard Greagor described him as ‘a baritone clearly with the potential to make a fine career’.

Not surprisingly, Will King made a splendid job of the Five Mystical Songs. He has a big, beautiful voice and excellent musicianship. From his first entry, he demonstrated the vigorous, rapturous sound that these songs demand. His diction is superb – I could have taken dictation from him. At one point during ‘Love bade me welcome’ I wondered whether he understood the poetry – George Herbert was a religious mystic, after all. But it was impossible to tell, because he thoroughly understood the music, and gave a superb performance. ‘The Call’ featured a gorgeous oboe solo, and Will King was lyrical perfection.

The choir acts mostly as backing group for the first four songs, until let off the leash in number five, ‘Let all the world in every corner sing’. I first sang this in the Auckland University Choir under Peter Godfrey, back in the late Cretaceous, and recall it as a bit of a shout. Not in the hands of Ewan Clark and Baroque Voices/Nota Bene. It was big and glad and joyful, with WCO’s wind and brass romping all over it.

The final work in the programme was Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music. This was written at about the time RVW was giving Douglas Lilburn a bad mark for the Drysdale Overture in his composition class at the Royal College of Music. The choir sang well, with various small solos being charmingly taken by one or two voices. Once or twice in quiet passages the orchestra overwhelmed the choir, but mostly the balance was good, with the choir’s sound delightfully imitating the instruments.  (I’m not sure whether to thank Ewan Clark or RVW, but it was lovely nonetheless.) The audience was enraptured, and applauded long enough to be rewarded with an encore, a reprise of ‘Let all the world’, which never sacrificed style for volume.

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

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

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

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

Cathedral of St Paul, Molesworth St. Wellington

Saturday 19 June 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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