Challenging and enterprising concert “Freedom and Captivity” and the like, from Nota Bene

Nota Bene conducted by Peter Walls
Organ: James Tibbles
NZSM Baroque Ensemble (Samantha Owens – oboe, Fleur Jackson – violin, Grant Baker and Sophie Acheson – violas, Rebecca Warnes and Corrina Connor – cellos)
Percussion: Sam Rich
Kapa haka: Fruen Samoa and Te Whanau Tahi; Kuia: Erina Daniels

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Saturday 1 October, 7:30 pm

This concert was entitled Freedom and Captivity, reflecting, in music and words, on the experience and problems faced in wars, in colonisation, in racism and other forms of oppression. A good example of what might still be to some, an improper mixing of art and politics (recall sport and politics a generation ago).

It is a worthy and fruitful topic which has inspired a lot of music and other arts, which can be discerned in all eras, particularly our own.

While all branches of the arts, especially literature, have always been intimately concerned with politics, and the visual arts only a little less so, music can easily exist, oblivious to politics.

Here, to make the point, music and readings were interspersed, handling many of the trials and tragedies of mankind: war, imprisonment, exile, cruelty, refugees…

Forced migration, from Biblical times
Forced migration has a long history, none more legendary than the expulsion of the Jews from Israel, and Psalm 113 was a fitting way to open the programme, assuming a universal approach to Biblical stories; this was presented in calm plainchant form sung by the women of the choir.

The readings were mixed, some, like the address of Volumnia from Coriolanus perhaps Shakespeare’s most profoundly political play with deep resonance for today, was an unfamiliar (to most) piece. Rebecca Blundell, a good soprano, came very close to capturing the full dramatic force of the mother’s plea to her son to desist from Assad-like killing of his own people.

Though amplification was evidently available, it was either not used or was inadequate and some of this and other readings were missed. An important part of any rehearsal is surely to test levels of audibility.

After the reading from Coriolanus, Arvo Pärt’s De Profundis (Psalm 130) was sung, a less specific but profound account of human persecution, which has been a rich source of inspiration by many composers and writers throughout European history. (A look at the Wikipedia entry on De Profundis is insightful, highly interesting; inter alia, there’s Shostakovich’s use in his song-cycle-like 14th Symphony of Garcia Lorca’s Spanish version of the Psalm, among many other poems dealing with mortality).

Pärt’s complex, tortured De Profundis is set in Latin for men’s choir, percussion and organ and was first performed in Kassel in 1981. His setting is far from the well-known, lucid pieces like Fratres or Spiegel im Spiegel or the Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten.  It was a challenge to the choir and indeed it was not altogether defeated; the percussion in the shape of a big bass drum, and the increasingly prominent organ, with some fine bass voices left quite an impression.

The second reading was an extract from a Department of Labour report on the 4500 post-WW2 refugees arriving at Pahiatua, taken from Anne Beaglehole’s study, Refugee New Zealand: A Nation’s Response to Refugees and Asylum Seekers. Jenny Gould’s voice, with its normal New Zealand character, was well adapted to the subject. I guess the message was: for a population about a third of today’s, we took about six times the number of refugees in a year.

David Morriss is a more experienced speaker and his reading from magistrate John Gorst’s important, almost classic account of the wars in the Waikato: The Maori King; or, the story of our quarrel with the natives of New Zealand of 1864 was an interesting revelation of tolerant balance. It reported, in a tone that was distinctly critical of Government handling of the causes and course of the wars, on refugees from Maori villages near Auckland. It too was extracted from Anne Beaglehole’s Refugee New Zealand.

Virginia Earle read with unpretentious simplicity a touching, imaginative piece from Short Stories by Young Refugees in New Zealand (2008). (It was taken from a collection of such material edited by Fiona Kidman and Jeff Thomas).

It struck me at about this point that dimmer lighting would have been in the interest of the small-scale dramas told in both words and music.

There were two further readings, in the second half. First, Martin Luther King’s famous speech of 23 August 1963 urging pacifism, tolerance, turning-the-other-cheek, in the face of White abuse. Ray Coats, from the pulpit, made a splendid oratorical impact.

James Bertram: poet, journalist, scholar
Poet and university English lecturer, James Bertram was a 1930s correspondent in China and wartime prisoner in Japan; With admirable clarity and almost excess ‘expression’, John Chote read Bertram’s poem Home Thoughts from Abroad – Tokyo working party 1945 offered another view of displacement, alienation, violence and inhumanity.

(I reflect gratefully on Bertram’s lectures throughout my university years: he was one of the few who could make enlivening references to music, and all the arts, while discussing, for example, Milton; charismatic perhaps not, but a wondrously elegant and articulate lecturer with a phenomenal flair for springing a telling and picturesque quotation on his happy students).
Apologies for that self-indulgence.

After Oxford, (as a Rhodes Scholar, and where he was one of the James McNeish’s Peacocks – Dance of the Peacocks, with Dan Davin, Geoffrey Cox, Ian Milner and John Mulgan) Bertram was a journalist on an Oxford scholarship to China and Japan from 1936, and he became deeply involved in China in the war years: he was taken prisoner by the Japanese in 1941 and was lucky to survive. After the war he returned to Japan as adviser to the New Zealand delegation to the Far Eastern Commission; and this was the source of his poem. He came to the English Department of Victoria University College in 1947.

To return to the music, which was just as varied.
Samuel Sebastian Wesley was a grandson of hymn-writer Charles Wesley whose brother was Methodist Church founder John Wesley. A respected composer in his day, his work, The Wilderness, pitched a quartet of voices against the full choir, demonstrating how the weaknesses of individual voices are obscured when singing en masse. But though I tried to be open-minded I did not find the performance revelatory or the music other than rather insipid.

An excerpt from an opera-in-progress, Kia tu tonu; Tohu tells us by Gillian Karawe Whitehead on Parihaka was semi-staged. But its dramatic impact could only be guessed at from an excerpt where there was no chance for an audience to understand the thrust of the story or to form an impression of characters. Just who was who in the crowd in front of us eluded me, as did the significance of spreading the choir members around the side aisles and the rear of the church, or Thomas Nikora in the gallery.

And one can only form a view of the musical force of a large-scale work like this from a fuller performance where it’s possible to hear things twice, and in the proper context.

Mendelssohn’s late-in-life motet on the Nunc Dimittis (Herr, nun lässet du), proved an interesting and attractive find, employing again a quartet of soloists contrasted with the full choir; it might have been conventional, both musically and liturgically, but this performance did it justice.

If that was almost Mendelssohn’s last work, the next was said to be Bach’s first known cantata, Aus der Tiefe, rufe dich (BWV 131), the German version of De Profundis, written at Mühlhausen; though I have been under the impression that Christ lag in Todes Banden (BWV 4) also written in Mühlhausen, where he worked immediately before his first major position at Weimar, was his first cantata. Anyway, now in the company of a baroque oboe, prominent right at the start, this was an interesting performance revealing an already mature composer, with recognisable Bachian melodic characteristics and harmonic finger-prints. The second movement gave bass David Morriss a rewarding opportunity in a typical Bach arioso. A peaceful aria and chorale, Meine Seele wartet auf, in triple time, gave tenor Patrick Geddes, in good voice, solo exposure nicely accompanied by cello. This movement was particularly charming as the choir, very quietly and unobtrusively beneath the solo voice, sang a reflective text lamenting the poet’s sins. The cantata ended with a beautifully balanced chorus with alternate fast and slow passages, with more attractive oboe exposure.

After that, the Spirituals from Tippett’s A Child of our Time, seemed perhaps uncalled for. I confess to remaining rather indifferent to even these examples of Tippett arrangements and will refrain from comment; in any case it started to seem a long concert.

And I suppose it was inevitable that the most famous composition involving an exiled people, ‘Va pensiero’ from Nabucco, would be included. Given the size of the choir, they did justice to this great heavyweight chorus describing the horrible experiences of a nation, experiences suffered today by a different population, oppressed now by the victims of 2500 years before.

So there had been enough unusual and rewarding music, touching on many of the crises that proliferate today. In fact, director Peter Walls and the choir are to be congratulated for their courage in presenting material that might be troubling for some, bringing the light of humanity to some of today’s most intractable problems.