Kindred Spirits indeed – Nota Bene and Guests at Sacred Heart Cathedral

Kindred Spirits: Nota Bene Chamber Choir and guests
Peter Walls (conductor)

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Hill St., Wellington

Sunday 7 May, 2017

The choral concert, ‘Kindred Spirits’, by Nota Bene Chamber Choir and guests, was a luminous and lovely affair. The themed programme juxtaposed compositions of Benjamin Britten and Jack Body, offering more substance than a ‘regular’ concert might, the sum more than its parts. The acoustic in this light-filled space is clear and clean, and enterprising use was made of different areas in the church. Good sightlines make it a most attractive and comfortable concert venue and the capacity audience could tell they were in for a good time.

Peter Walls in an interview with Eva Radich on Upbeat (worth listening to on RNZ archive) gave background to his idea that these two composers could indeed be seen as kindred spirits, sharing musical sensibilities, as well as similar concerns … including pacifism, an appreciation of the music in other cultures especially Indonesia, and an empathy for those struggling in different times and places for their society’s acceptance of homosexuality.

The opening work, a traditional Macapat sung by Budi Putra, director of the Gamelan Padhang Moncar of VUW, was delivered in the rich and astonishingly resonant voice that Putra has long been recognized for. The violin of Tristan Carter danced a bridge between music worlds.

Britten’s Hymn to the Virgin, with its ascetic clarity, was followed by Body’s Carol to St.Stephen. The voice of the itinerant soprano seems to arrive through stained glass windows around the church, and Jeltsje Keizer delivered that beautifully. (Some of us remember Marilyn Waring in the premiere of this work 1976, in St. Peters Church in Willis St. There is much in Wellington’s music history to hold dear).

Lesley Graham sang ‘S’un casto amor, s’una pieta superna’ an excerpt from Body’s Love Sonnets of Michelangelo ( from the 1976 season Between Two Fires, choreographed by Michael Parmenter, another work that has remained etched in the memory). This was followed by Britten’s setting of the same poetic text. Both composers had also written a Hymn to St. Cecilia – and in the Body work, Daisy Venables, newcomer to the choir, revealed a voice of heavenly quality.

During the interval many expressed regret at the absence of recording microphones from such an engaging concert which could surely have been broadcast to an appreciative national audience? Lucky we were to be there in person.

Wellington Young Voices, over 30 young singers directed by Christine Argyle (founding director of Nota Bene) sang Britten’s Psalm 150 with spirited and sweet sounds, and later This little babe from his A Ceremony of Carols. This choir is brimming with talent and enthusiasm to give us much to look forward to.

Gamelan Padhang Moncar played Jack Body’s So Short the life – a lively, lovely, poignant piece, being played close to the second anniversary of the death of this much loved composer. ‘Vita brevis’ indeed, but ‘ars longa’. The gamelan instruments produce familiar sounds yet are played without the intensity of interlocking patterns of the traditional gamelan music we are accustomed to hearing – as though voices from the past join the players, and a microphone involved as a musical instrument helps carry the sound towards the future. A remarkable composition.

Finally Jack Body’s People Look East, based on the ecstatic poem and melody by Eleanor Farjeon, sent out a joyful clarion that made fitting finale to an inspired and inspiring concert.

Peter Walls had had a good idea, followed it through, and all the performers did the occasion proud. The chance we had to contemplate echoes, contrasts and parallels in works from two stunning composers is one that will not easily be forgotten.