125th Women’s Suffrage Anniversary Concert with Cantoris in Wellington

Cantoris Choir  presents:

AMY BEACH – Festival Jubilate
Hymn – All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name
ELAINE SHARMAN – Works for piano solo – Fish / Rain / Icicles / Deep Water
JENNY McLEOD – Sun Carols

Cantoris Choir

Thomas Nikora, Musical Director

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

Wednesday 19th September 2018

2018 marks the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand.  On 19 September 1893 the Electoral Act 1893 was passed, giving all women in New Zealand the right to vote.  As a result of this landmark legislation, New Zealand became the first self-governing country in the world in which all women had the right to vote in parliamentary elections.

Cantoris Choir in Wellington presented a concert of works on the anniversary of the actual legislation, a presentation intended to “bring to life and shine a spotlight on women’s achievements in music composition”. This extended offshore, with the inclusion in the programme of pieces by the American composer Amy Beach (1867-1944), reflecting a world-wide women’s movement to achieve recognition as creative artists, both in Beach’s era and leading up to the present time.

Works by two present-day New Zealand composers, Dame Gillian Whitehead and Jenny McLeod, took up the remainder of the programme, and were joined by an unassuming but nevertheless distinctive set of piano pieces by a Wellington composer and teacher Elaine Sharman (1939-2018).

In the case of Amy Beach, her music has had a complex history – fighting contemporary attitudes that women lacked the proper facilities to be creative artists (voiced most influentially, perhaps, by Antonin Dvorak in 1892, to the effect that “….they (women) have not the creative power”), Beach’s works achieved considerable success at first, seemingly against all odds – she was entirely American-trained, and became one of the first US composers whose work was recognised in Europe.

A child prodigy pianist, she made her debut in 1883, also having several compositions published that year for the first time. Upon her marriage she concentrated on composition (at her husband’s request), and produced a vast array of music, among which was her “Festival Jubilate”, a work commissioned by the World’s Columbian Exposition which opened in 1892 (celebrating the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s landfall in the New World).

Cantoris’s programme notes comment that, prior to the first performance of the work at the Exposition the following year a landmark speech concerning women’s rights and equalities was delivered (by the leader of the Board of Lady Managers of the Exposition, Bertha Honore Palmer, the acknowledged Queen of Chicago Society) to an audience of two thousand people. One critic wrote afterwards that Beach’s work was then “a fitting climax to {Palmer’s} address, which was in itself a “jubilate” over the emancipation of women”, while  another wrote that the music was “a clarion of triumph – the cry of a Balboa discovering a new sea of opportunity and emotion”.

Despite this and other successes in almost all genres of composition, Beach’s music after her death was neglected until relatively recently. Because of the success she experienced in her lifetime she remained a “presence”, although the neglect was a very real phenomena – and even now her music hasn’t taken its place in the repertory alongside that of somebody like Aaron Copland’s, for example. The work of living female composers is increasingly recognised, but there’s a distinct absence from the repertory of music by women in Beach’s era and earlier.

This evening’s major work by Beach, the “Festival Jubilate” though performed by Cantoris in a version with piano, rather than orchestral accompaniment, made a splendidly full-blooded impression, giving us little inkling as to why the work might have suffered neglect since its composer’s death. A heartfelt, full-throated choral sound at the outset, splendidly sustained in slow, harmonic rhythm and bolstered by a turbo-charged orchestral piano straightaway caught and held the attentions, before the piece flowed into a fugal-like sequence, with different strands clearly and sonorously delivered. I particularly relished what seemed like a Beethoven-like moment at the sequence’s end, not unlike the anticipation created by those repeated cries of “Vor Gott!!” in the latter’s Choral Symphony finale.

Beach’s own documented performances of Beethoven’s piano sonatas occasionally seemed to have “informed” her musical fabric in places, as echoes of passages from these works “ghosted“ the piano accompaniments and transitions linking the work’s sections. Jonathan Berkahn’s playing excellently dominated the sound-picture when appropriate and gave sterling support to the singers at other times while Director Thomas Nikora’s conducting allowed the stratospheric lines of the sopranos as much space and freedom as the basses’ lowest notes which here were “sounded” most impressively. What scintillations and energies there were in the renditions of the cries of “Gloria”, the lines riding on high in suitably ceremonial fashion, with the piano adding both sparkle and energy to the mix! And how sonorously the “Amens” sang out, gladdening the hearts and thrilling the senses of listeners revelling in the composer’s mastery of her forces and presentation of the material!

The “Festival Jubilate” was followed by another work by Amy Beach, a hymn written in 1915, to words by Edward Perronet, a Missionary who worked in India in the Eighteenth Century. Obviously hymn-like, the piece was beautifully sung, with the sopranos again shining with their sweet and true tones, and receiving plenty of support from the choir’s other sections. A third verse was begun softly, in contrast to the rest, while a concluding section grandly and unexpectedly modulated to bring the work to a satisfying end.

After the interval, something completely different diverted our attentions to engaging effect – a mini-recital of pieces written by a Wellington teacher and composer, Elaine Sharman. She studied composition at Victoria University of Wellington with both Douglas Lilburn and David Farquhar, but regarded herself more as an educationalist and advocate for music than a composer or performer. Incidentally, each of the four pieces have been published in recent collections of New Zealand piano music edited by composer-teacher Gillian Bibby, three in an anthology called “Take Flight” and one in another collection called “Sunrise”.

“Fish”, the first piece, alternated quirky, angular rhythms with more smoothly-flowing sets of impulses, while the following “Rain” gave us beautifully-wrought resonances deriving from both downward and upward figurations – a simple, but strongly effective illustrative idea, Debussy-like in effect. The third, “Icicles” evoked rows of stalagtites and stalagmites, strong at the base but delicate and scintillating at their tips.The final “Deep Water” began with subaqueous sounds whose impulses occasionally broke away to represent the play of light on the watery surfaces and the downward refraction of those light-strands, beautifully connecting surfaces and depths with murmuring arpeggiations – all simple, but stunningly effective, and played with real sensitivity by a member of Cantoris, bass

The choir re-entered (from the front, a little disconcertingly, this time) to perform Dame Gillian Whitehead’s Missa Brevis, a work I hadn’t heard “live”, even though it’s one of her earliest compositions. It has been given performances in both London and Chicago, as well as by a number of groups here in New Zealand, and recorded on the excellent “Waiteata Collection” series of CDs of NZ composers’ works.

Begun by the sopranos, the elegantly-shaped lines of the “Kyrie” immediately generated a kind of ritual ambience at once timeless and redolent of medieval music – the altos followed, elaborating on the sopranos’ figurations, the effect spreading through the voices, culminating in a resonant and definite chord of a fifth. Sopranos and altos harmonised in thirds with the “Christe”, tightening the intervals as the men’s voices entered, supported by a solo ‘cello. The men’s voices finished on a unison note. Then, with the “Kyrie’s” return the altos took the lead, the music beautifully flowing from line to line, each group “handing over” the music as the flow continued, again concluding with an open fifth.

A tenor solo began the “Gloria”, reinforcing the ritual once again, before the sopranos led off, combining with anxious intervals of a second in places with the altos, the text praising God, but the music displaying some tensions in the Almighty’s presence, settling down again with long unison stretches up to “Jesu Christe”, before rising in a series of layered pleadings at “Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, Filius Patris” – quite beautiful!

“Qui tollis” brought forth a different kind of beauty, long-breathed, tightly-harmonised floating lines sopranos lifting upwards, basses remaining anchored, as if all humanity were inhabiting the spaces in between, the different strands resonating with a beautifully-voiced ”Miserere nobis”, with the “fifth” again in evidence at the end. As if unable to restrain their emotions, the voices burst out with the “Quoniam”, pouring energy into their tones for the three “Tu solus…” acclamations, sopranos and altos encouraging each other in the “In Gloria dei Patris”, and then beginning a lovely elongated “Amen”.

We heard the gentle pealing of bells at the “Sanctus” with the sopranos and altos overlapping to redolent effect, melismatic impulses growing from the pealing bells, and a single-strand soprano “Pleni sunt caeli” similarly rising skyward – a beautiful sequence! The “Hosannas” were more declamatory and florid, making a telling contrast with the previous tintinnabulations. The “Benedictus” featured a near-obsessive downward repetition of a phrase from altos and basses, before the “Hosannas” sprang back into hearing, even more euphoric and florid than before.

After the beauties of the “Sanctus” the “Agnus Dei” was a sobering change, the vocal textures austere and bleak at the outset, the lines together but pursuing separate courses, the music rising to despairing heights, before the voices came together once more with “Dona Nobis Pacem”, the lines huddling together at first, but gradually opening up and out and risking a unison of hope right at the work’s end.

To conclude the concert we were given Jenny McLeod’s “Sun Festival Carols”, which was a 1983 commission from the Wellington City Council for the city’s “Sun Festival” of that year. On that occasion a women’s and children’s choir performed the carols, alongside various other festivities, including fireworks, to celebrate the beginning of summer.

The piano here returned as accompaniment, Jonathan Berkhan pitching the instrument once again into the fray with the voices, this time engaging with the attractive “Road Music” aspect of the opening carol, “Vulcan”, whose trajectory wasn’t unlike the well-known “Joshua fit de battle of Jericho”. It all worked well with piano, the syncopated rhythms all the more strongly projected and counter-balanced. By contrast the second carol, “Ochre”, was more ritualised and “circular” – the different lines described circles of their own to meet other strands, not unlike “recite and answer” music. A third carol “Azure” began with brilliant piano scintillations and with sopranos and altos exchanging opening lines, with the sopranos having a gorgeous sequence in the work’s middle, singing in thirds, before joining in unison with the other sections for a final, rousing effect.

A piquant rhythmic pattern supported flowing melodic lines in No.4 “Henna”, a gentle “gospel blues” kind of a rhythm, a marked contrast to the trenchant trajectories and melodies of the following carol No.5 “Gentian” –  an attractive syncopated filigree moment signalling a contrasting sequence during which the opening was momentarily “transformed” before returning to the grunty opening manner. A single note then heralded No.6 “Indigo I” with delicate lullabic sounds, from “out of the blue” as it were, a soprano being put to the test and emerging with credit, the women’s voices combining beautifully with the music’s more “narrative” sections.

The composer’s impish rhythmic invention brought No.7, “Jade”’s beginning to life, with straightforward meters gradually attenuated, sopranos and altos having the melody and the men the rhythm. The music irradiated joy and exuberance throughout its middle section, the piano’s extended postscript giving us the chance to “climb down” from wherever, once again, perhaps in preparation for the nostalgic beauties of the final carol Indigio II (No.8). Its gentle rhythms and beautiful melodic lines were here exquisitely realised, recalling for this listener something of the wonderment of a child’s Christmas. The central section’s long-breathed lines in particular seemed to activate the gift of recollection of long ago, the piano at the end appearing to trail off into a kind of disappearing world, having worked its magic in tandem with the rest of the performers’ sterling efforts.

Afterwards, while walking back to my car I was suddenly and unexpectedly re-struck by the thought that I had been to a concert whose music had been composed entirely by women – but at the time of listening I’d forgotten entirely about that, and so, probably, had most of the rest of the audience! Our enjoyment of it all was seemingly “driven” first and foremost by the sounds themselves and their performance – a sign of the times? – progress? – even a victory? 125 years AND Jacinda Ardern later, here was this music in New Zealand roaring out its message with no inhibitions or self-conscious restraints! Notable thoughts, and not the least for this day of days!…….