Poetry and music co-habit most successfully at St Andrew’s lunchtime concert

St Andrew’s lunchtime concerts
Ingrid Prosser and Colin Decio – a programme featuring piano and poetry
Debussy: La cathédrale engloutie (No 10 of Preludes, book 1)
Tennyson: Poem: The Lady of Shalott
Rachmaninov: Preludes, Op 23, Nos 4 & 5
Ingrid Prosser: Poem: Jehanne la Pucelle
Ravel: Miroirs, No 4 – Alborada del gracioso

St Andrews Church, 30 The Terrace

Wednesday 27 March, 12:15 pm

The world of music has almost totally overwhelmed the world of poetry. That’s not to say that there has ever been a large, ravenous audience for poetry, particularly over the past couple of centuries. There are probably few people today who have poetry anthologies and even volumes of poetry by the likes of Wordsworth, Keats, Tennyson, Kipling, on their shelves; fewer than those with a piano in the house. Most of the population under the age of about 60 have hardly been exposed in school to the huge treasury of poetry in English, let alone in other languages. The time when my own generation heard their teachers and even their parents quoting bits of poetry or reading poems to their pupils or their own children, seems like a completely foreign, vanished era.

The choice of poems and music here was not random. Debussy’s sunken cathedral was an inspired piece to set alongside one of Tennyson’s best-known poems.

La cathédrale engloutie is inspired by a Breton legend about an ancient city, Ys (also the subject of an opera by Lalo, Le roi d’Ys; inter alia, Roberto Alagna sings an aria from it on his CD ‘French arias’), built on reclaimed land surrounded by dykes; there is a gate in the dyke that can be opened at low tide and the king’s daughter steals the key and opens the gate, causing the city to be flooded: thus the cathedral is submerged. On clear mornings the cathedral can be seen, its carillon bells heard. Both the Ys legend and Tennyson’s elusive elaboration of an episode from the Arthurian legends can be seen as products of an overheated Romantic imagination, dealing with the perils of transgressing an unarticulated separation of the real world from that of the creative imagination.

Colin Decio’s playing sounded immediately authoritative with its heavy modal chords, though there was little mystery or other-worldliness. He captured the atmosphere of engulfing waters sensitively with evocative bass notes and a sense of ancient legend.

The Lady of Shallot
Ingrid Prosser picked up the mystical thread of water as an agent of the supernatural, with Tennyson’s Lady of Shallot. It’s a story with its slender origin in Arthurian legend, about Lancelot and the Lady of Shallot, who dies love-stricken, from a mysterious curse, the result of the conflict between the isolated artist and the physical world beyond the isolated island where she lives alone, weaving her magic web.  Hugely popular in its day, it inspired painters like Holman Hunt and Waterhouse whose reproductions are everywhere, including my childhood home, where poem and painting were closely connected.

So the poem had a curious impact for me, as I hadn’t heard it read aloud since my father’s bedside reading (typically of his generation, Tennyson had special meaning for him, and I have his well-thumbed volume, dating from his first year at university, with his initials gold-embossed on the front of the leather binding). There was a good deal more darkness and rhetorical character in his reading than with Prosser’s lighter tone that let the narrative speak clearly. Tennyson’s strict rhythmic and rhyming patterns (four rhymes in short successive lines) are singular and it was a delight to hear it and for light to shine through its strange, enigmatic story, symbolic, ahead of the symbolist movement proper later in the 19th century.

Rachmaninov and Ravel
Colin Decio returned to play two Rachmaninov preludes: the D major and the G minor, from Op 23; the first warm and lyrical that has something of a ‘ballade’ character about it, and the second in the very familiar marching style with its contrasted contemplative section. They were intelligently and musically played – not immaculately perhaps, but with affection and a keen ear to the sometimes unruly acoustic in the church. And his third offering was Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso, more often heard in its brilliant orchestral version: sudden dynamic shifts, even from one note to the next, again with a middle section that imposed a calm on the impulsive frenzy of the outer parts. Slightly marred by slips but a splendid performance nevertheless.

I tried to find narrative or emotional links between these piano pieces and the poem that lay between them, but nothing other than a common military quality in the G minor prelude and Joan of Arc’s story came to mind.

Prosser’s ‘Jehanne la pucelle’
Ingrid Prosser’s narrative poem was inspired by a journey in a part of France: the estuary of the Somme which has a connection with the march of Joan of Arc, ‘Jehanne la pucelle’, to her trial and execution by the English in Rouen. It had the character of a dramatic poem touching on many aspects of Anglo-French history and the ridiculous monarchical conflict, the Hundred Years War.

Just brief background: That war had its origin in the Norman invasion of England (William the Conqueror), which implied English rule over parts of France and tempted the English to extend their rule to the entire country. Joan of Arc entered the scene to revive French determination to rid the country of the English, whose ambitions to conquer more of France, had been re-inspired by Henry V’s victory at Agincourt, in 1415. After Henry V died in 1422, it looked as if the English could prevail, until the emergence of Joan which led to decisive French victory at the siege of Orléans in 1429. But in 1430 she was captured by the Burgundians, English allies, and handed to the English at Rouen which the English had held. There, in 1431, she was tried and burned at the stake. English strength in France then fell apart, and a more centralised France with a professional army soon became the most powerful force in Europe. For the English, defeat on the Continent led indirectly to the Wars of the Roses.

Poetry has changed since the late nineteenth century: regular rhythms and multiple rhymes are unimportant, which leaves poems dependent on the play of ideas and evocative imagery and symbols and suggestive references. Though the details of the story of Joan’s emergence, reviving French determination to regain control of their country, are only known sketchily to most, Ingrid Prosser’s weaving  the names of saints and places into a framework of words and imagery, and events, created a persuasive emotional and even pictorial story. And the spirited, histrionic manner of her delivery held the attention.

There are many styles of poetic recitation, and some with their roots in elocution lessons, imagined ‘English’ theatrical speech and private school education, are today intolerable. Prosser’s style was both poetic and narrative in a natural way and she held audience attention through her mixture of naturalness and conviction.

I hope that this successful recital will inspire further poetic undertakings of similar kinds.


Singular, well-conceived recital by male four-voice ensemble, reaching far and wide

Aurora IV: Dark Light, To mark the Spring Equinox
‘Exploring darkness and light and the shadows in between’

Toby Gee (counter-tenor), Richard Taylor (tenor), Julian Chu-Tan (baritone), Simon Christie (bass)

Music from 500 years ago to five years ago, by Lassus, Sheppard, Jean Mouton, Schubert, William Harris, Andrew Smith, anonymous plainchant and two poems (Emily Dickinson and Anne Glenny Wilson)

Pukeahu National War Memorial, Hall of Memories, Carillon, Mount Cook

Saturday 22 September, 8 pm

The beautiful, and acoustically excellent Hall of Memories carved into the bottom of the Carillon is one of the loveliest places for music in the city. It’s a wonder that it’s not more used for music recitals.

My previous musical experiences here have been by choirs: The Tudor Consort, Nota Bene; and just three months ago, Peter Mechen reviewed a concert by Baroque Voices.

Aurora IV have moved around. Their last concert was in the TGIF series at the Cathedral of St Paul’s, and my last hearing, in November 2017, was at St Andrew’s on The Terrace with a programme that was nearly as wide-ranging at this was.

The Hall was lit by a dozen candles on the floor and others on ledges on the side walls. It created a strangely spiritual atmosphere that was generally appropriate to the sense of the music. However, it made the reviewer’s task tricky, for it was not possible to read the titles of the pieces, and so there was a certain amount of guesswork, later, in fitting my sketchy notes to the works listed on the programme; which was otherwise excellent, offering words of each piece, in English. Ideally, it’s also nice for the original language to be supplied as well… but you can’t have everything.

The programme, of sixteen pieces, with all the words ran to three pages. Though being advertised as being about an hour, it seemed improbable at the outset, but the timing was indeed right.

The theme of the concert, the Equinox, when hours of light start to exceed those of the dark, drew on music, and some poetry, that touched on the transition from darkness to the light, which lends itself to symbolic references, both religious and secular.

The major element was parts of a Requiem Mass by Orlando de Lasso (here Orlandus Lassus), late 16th century.

After the lights went down, distant sounds of singing emerged from behind us, as from nowhere: a plainsong setting of a verse from the Lamenatations of Jeremiah. Sung by a solo tenor – presumably Richard Taylor – it seemed to float into the high vault of the chapel.

There were also pieces by Oslo-resident British composer Andrew Smith. I was intrigued later as I read my notes alongside the programme to find that I’d remarked on the Renaissance sounds, alternating with distinctly contemporary passages; it turned out to be Smith’s Flos regalis virginalis, and was relieved to read that this was the composer’s style: “his modern harmonic twists cast sparks of light against the darker, mystical tones of plainsong and medieval polyphony“.

Furthermore, it created a sound image of more than four voices. Which was a characteristic of their singing that impressed me many times: I was hearing both the richness of a small choir, but of one whose perfect ensemble gave the impression of single voices.

Other Andrew Smith pieces were a Magnificat. Once again I found its nature enigmatic and my notes bore the cryptic word ‘language?’; it must have been Latin. However, I enjoyed the echoey, complex harmonies, along with touches of plainsong. Their third Smith piece was And Surrexit Christus (I’m not sure whether that is usually known as ‘Hodie Christus natus est’). Again, not being able to read the programme, I scribbled ‘wide harmonies evolving into more dissonant’ music. Aurora IV have recently given the New Zealand premieres of all his pieces performed in this concert.

The Introit, ‘Requiem aeternam’ of Lassus’s Missa pro defunctis, was the first of three excerpts; later we heard his setting of Psalm 23, as a Responsory, commonly used in the Mass, then the Sanctus, and near the end of the concert, the Lux aeterna. My note in the dark about the first of Lassus’s excerpts remarked ‘perfectly blended voices’, each sounding of similar impressive quality’, and later that the bass, Simon Christie, sounded ‘clearly of international stature’. That section included ‘Te decet hymnus, Deus, in Sion, Et tibi reddetur votum in Jerusalem’ and then the Kyrie.

Emily Dickinson’s comforting, much loved poem, ‘We grow accustomed to the dark’ followed, seeming to touch emotions very similar to the impact of the preceding music, though written three centuries later. It was admirably read, without a trace of elocuted, ‘poetic’ diction, by Toby Gee who also read Anne Glenny Wilson’s ‘A spring afternoon in New Zealand’ which was very popular in the 1890s. Not a poet I’d come across, and I enjoyed this poem and others by her that I found (inevitably, in these Googling times); quite comparable to Swinburne or Thomas Hardy, Bridges or Drinkwater, and Emily Dickinson if you like, of similar sensibility.

Quis dabit oculis? is a lament on the death of Queen Anne of Brittany by Jean Mouton – 16th century, featuring counter-tenor Toby Gee prominently. The Irish folksong, She moved through the fair, followed, after two of the singers had moved to the sides, conjured such a different aural landscape, in clearly pronounced Irish accents, in the seamless sounds of polyphony. (Was the remote sound of a flute an external coincidence or a part of the performance?).

Schubert’s Die Nacht was the only German entrant in the concert; apart from the distinct sound of the language, I might have been pressed to identify the composer, but the singing was perfectly idiomatic in words by a rather obscure poet of Schubert’s time. (part songs – there are many – by German Lieder composers, seem to be rarely performed).

Another anthem, in English, was William Harris’s Holy is the true light, a typical 20th century, four-part anthem, showing the quartet’s ease in a shift from the Medieval or Renaissance to a musically touching, contemporary idiom, not nearly as saccharine as such pieces sometimes sound.

Another outlier was a Latin motet by John Shepard, English mid-16th century, In Manus tuas, with a dominant tenor line handling the plainchant, between weaving polyphony, written probably during Mary’s reign when it was safe to compose Catholic music in Latin (dangerous not to!).

It ended with plainsong, as it had begun: first, lamenting the fall of Jerusalem, and the last offering the light of everlasting paradise. They were more or less forced to sing an encore: ‘Il bianco e dolore cigno’ by Flemish composer Jacques Arcadelt, which I was driven to find and play several versions of with great delight, on YouTube.

It was a totally admirable concert by four male singers whose voices coalesced in a way that is rare; and as well, they found the appropriate tone and rhythms that coloured the words and their musical settings, with sensitivity, awareness of their era, and just sheer intelligence.


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.