Ballades, Songs and Snatches – singer and piper at Futuna Chapel

Colours of Futuna Concert Series

Songs, instrumentals and duos

Rowena Simpson (soprano)

Kamala Bain (recorders)

Futuna Chapel, Friend St., Karori, Wellington

Sunday 2nd November, 2014

If there’s anybody reading this who hasn’t made the mini-pilgrimage to the exquisite Futuna Chapel in Karori, Wellington, I would strongly recommend to whomever that action be urgently taken. The building alone is worth the visit – an award-winning architectural design by Hawkes Bay architect John Scott, commissioned in 1958 by the Catholic Society of Mary, and built by the brothers of the Society themselves as a place of spiritual retreat and contemplation.

Alas, the chapel’s original setting amid native bush stretching back to the hillsides has been besmirched by development, a process which threatened to gobble up not only the land and the bush, but the chapel itself, until a Trust was formed to negotiate with the developers to save the original building, at the very least.

Part of the Trust’s fund-raising efforts to maintain the chapel is the establishment of this concert series, something that happens to be both worthwhile and instantly rewarding for all contributors to the enterprise. While virtually nothing of the original setting remains, it’s possible, once inside the chapel, to shut out the ironies of the cultural despoilations around and about, and experience something of the place’s original purpose – John Scott’s design continues to resonate and overwhelm, simply and quietly utilising light and space in a timeless and unforgettable manner.

So, Futuna Chapel has been, thanks to sterling efforts on the part of people for whom such things have a transcendence beyond material gain, more fortunate in its preservation than, say, another historic Wellington venue, Island Bay’s Erskine College, much older, but as beautiful and distinctive and as worthy of preservation. Alas, efforts to instigate restoration of Erskine have encountered attendant problems which come with ownership, age and costs that I suspect may well require the attentions of some arts-loving, community-minded millionaire for anything lasting to be achieved.

Back in Karori, the “Colours of Futuna” concert series provides the Sunday afternoon visitor to the chapel with added value, a fusion of light, space and sound for which the building might seem to have been purpose-built.  Of course music has always been part-and-parcel of most expressions of spiritual faith, and the venues constructed for this purpose have usually enhanced this propensity for supporting “voices raised in worship” – though hardly cathedral-like in size, Futuna Chapel certainly supports and fulfills this state of things according with and in addition to the building’s original purpose.

For the latest Sunday concert we were delighted by a programme that could have been called “ballades, songs and snatches”, given by soprano Rowena Simpson and recorder-player Kamala Bain. Spanning centuries and continents, the two musicians moved easily between different musical forms and styles, sounds and languages, observations and emotions, enough variety without neglecting deeper feelings, and including both familiar strains and in places, newer, ear-catching sounds.

I’ve encountered both of these musicians revelling in presentations with more than a whiff of the theatre about them – so it seemed entirely natural that each should comfortably utilize the performing platform as a kind of “stage”, especially such one as this, whose light and space would suggest any kind of naturalistic or dramatic vista – Rowen Simpson began the concert with an unaccompanied setting by English composer Michael Head of poet Bronnie Taylor’s “The Singer”, a piece with some haunting major/minor key alternating, and some beautiful vocal ascents, such as at the words “and the sound of fairy laughter” right at the end.

Right at the song’s end Kamala Bain’s recorder took up the melodic threads, the player remaining at the back of the chapel for an antiphonal effect, one which further opened up our vistas appropriate to such an out-of-doors song, bringing a touch of ritual to it all with an anonymous 14th Century Italian ballata “Lucente Stelle’ – even more distant antiquities were shaken and stirred by the next settings, two exerpts from the Exeter Book of Riddles, the work of contemporary English composer Nicola LeFanu.

The soprano read us the riddles first, not to spoil the game, but to clarify the texts – the first, Siren, had a lament-like aspect, a wide-ranging vocal line, part ecstatic, part tragic, in places almost “Queen-of-the-Night”-like in its melismatic demands – complementing the singer, the recorder sounded a kind of birdsong obbligato, underlining the ‘nature-piece’ aspect of the music. The second riddle “Swan” not unexpectedly proved smoother-toned, calmer of movement, the recorder dulcetly reflecting the waters, the vocal line again soaring, but very gracefully, briefly trilling ecstatically with the recorder, before the latter returns to those long watery lines.

One could have been excused for imagining we had been transported to an aviary for the next item, Australian John Rodgers’ “Three Short Pieces”, featuring the movement of the recorder-player to a different location for three different birdsongs, very effective and naturalistic. From evocation we were taken to invocation, with Lyell Creswell’s “Prayer to appease the Spirit of the Land”, a work dedicated to Tracy Chadwick, a New Zealand soprano who died young, from leukemia. This was original a Maori text rendered into English, sung gently, with floated lines over a very “earthy” recorder accompaniment, with breathy tones and pitch-bending suggesting wind-notes – altogether a moving tribute to a young singer.

Another New Zealand work, by Dorothy Ker, was a setting of a poem by Ruth Dallas, “On the Bridge” for soprano solo, a folkish setting, sounding in effect like a spontaneously-conceived improvisation from the singer, the impulses at first high-flying, then trailing off gently.  And then came the next item, a work by the Dutch composer Karel van Steenhoven, one called “Nachtzang”  (Night Song). Recorder-player Kamala Bain “warned” us about this piece beforehand, stressing the necessity for we listeners to “use our imaginations” – it was a bit like the musical equivalent of a “Government Health Warning”, but at least we were prepared!

The soprano’s wordless line floated long-breathed notes over the top of an agitated molto perpetuum figure, before singer and recorder wove their lines around one another in bird-songish fashion, producing some extraordinary unison and intervalled passages. In places the singer “vocalized” the lines, occasionally breathing agitatedly, at other places crying out like a baby – the recorder contributed ghosty tremolandi to various episodes, with the outside wind occasionally contributing a naturalistic counterpoint!  The sounds certainly took us “out of ourselves” and into more uncertain worlds somewhat removed from our comfort-zones.

Such were the contrasts and drastic changes of sounds and moods wrought by the performers throughout the afternoon that we were beginning to expect almost anything could happen at this stage – and it did, with the presentation of several Scottish Songs from the eighteenth-century “Orpheus Caledonius” collection made by the singer and folk-song enthusiast William Thomson. Kamala Bain brilliantly caught the “snap” of the rhythms of Auld Rob Morris, and was then joined by Rowena Simpson for the second song, Lady Ann Bothwel’s Lament, which had a lovely high vocal tessitura in places and a droll drone recorder accompaniment. The music of the third song, Sleepy Body, seemed to belie its title, the soprano turning instrumentalist and playing a glockenspiel to assist with the delightful recorder-tones.

“This brand new work” began the sentence introducing the programme’s next item, “Night Countdown” by Wellington composer Philip Brownlee (present at the performance). Setting the words of a poem by Peggy Dunstan, the music explores the state of being that exists “in the space between wakefulness and sleep”. to quote the composer’s own words. The sounds weren’t necessarily literal reproductions of the poem’s images, but were used in an attempt to encourage different interpretations of the words’ meanings. The singer read the poem before the music began, to give us an idea of the word-terrain to follow. Rowena played the glockenspiel and Kamala the largest of the recorders, the latter encouraging some amazing timbal variation from the instrument, including a kind of simultaneously-produced array of harmonic/overtone sounds.

The vocal line moved lazily and sensuously at first, but arched confidently towards more ecstatic regions as the night’s multifarious elements were “banked up” in an impressive catalogue. Singer and recorder-player enjoyed the “chorus of barking”, before joining voices for the last few phrases of the poem – the climactic “one me” was sung and spoken together as if by a chorus. A lovely work, the words and music having more than a whiff of the power of those “A Child’s Garden of Verses” poems by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Jacopo da Bologna’s 14th Century madrigal Non al su’amante featured the story of the Goddess Diana bathing in a mountain stream and being observed by a passing hunter – what beautiful singing and playing lines, here!  Especially telling was the blend of lyrical voice and excitable recorder figurations. The story didn’t appear to have a happy ending, judging by the melancholia that seemed to grip the piece over its last minute or so’s duration! A happier, more energetic outing for all concerned was provided by an anonymous 14th Century French ballade, “Constantia”, a dancing, tintinabulating expression of joy from voice and instrument that makes one wish one could be a time-traveller!

This was a great concert for home-grown music, as next was Helen Fisher’s setting of Lauris Edmond’s poem I name this place, one of the verses from a collection “Scenes from a Small City”. As befitted the occasion for which the piece was written (the wedding of friends) the music has a renaissance-like feel, a ritualistic elegance to its lines and counterpoints, flavoured also in places by a “folkish” quality – the concluding flourishes by singer and player towards the end underlined the celebratory nature of the occasion. And to bring things to a close on a further optimistic note, we heard “Sumer is icumen in”, an appropriately cheerful and sonorous farewell to the afternoon’s evocations.