Orchestra Wellington and Orpheus Choir adventurous in Bartok, irresistible in Orff

Orchestra Wellington presents:

BARTOK – Cantata Profana
ORFF – Carmina Burana

Amelia Berry (soprano), Amitai Pati (tenor), Christian Thurston (baritone)
Orpheus Choir of Wellington (Brent Stewart, director)
Wellington Young Voices (Mark Stamper, director)
Orchestra Wellington
Marc Taddei (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 22nd May, 2021

Encountering a work in concert every now and then that has somehow “slipped through the net” of my musical experience sometimes results in a bit of a “juggle” of contrasting feelings, and especially when one is a reviewer – I get enormous pleasure in the discovery of something new, but also feel a degree of guilt at not having come across the “something” earlier, and especially if it’s a work by a well-known composer! Bartok’s “Cantata Profana” fell into this category – a work that was new to me, and one which needed some familiarising on my part via recordings before I felt better prepared for the “Virtuoso Voices” concert, so as to get at least some of it already playing in my head.

I confess I didn’t really know what to expect, though having seen and heard Bartok’s opera “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle” I was familiar with something of the composer’s vocal writing style, one which reflected his preoccupation with Hungarian and Roumanian folk-tunes and their idioms, a process akin to what Musorgsky had attempted to do a few years earlier in Russia, by reproducing idioms and accents of native speech in his music in search of something “Russian”. Bartok had collected the two poems in the form of Roumanian colinde or carols, on which he based his cantata’s story, in 1914, at first assigning the Roumanian texts to a Hungarian poet for translation, but eventually using his own Hungarian translation. He then entrusted a German translation to Bence Szabolcsi, a Hungarian musicologist, and an English translation to the polygot Michel-Dmitri Calvocoressi (whose translation, ironically, was used at the work’s premiere performance in London, in 1934, the first printed edition of the score using the German and English texts!). Fascinating!

As I’d heard only Hungarian texts in the recordings I’d listened to, I couldn’t help registering the difference made at the concert itself by the relative “softness” (almost to the point of “blandness” in places) of the English works, which presented for myself and people who sat nearby to me at the concert the performance’s only drawback – the unintelligibility of most of what was being sung. For all the Michael Fowler Centre’s qualities as a musical venue it tends to blunt and blur word-detail – vowel sounds and tonal colour do well, as here, but consonants and sharper detail get lost in the spaces without extra emphasis given their articulation – even when words are in English! Had we not had the general outlines of the cantata’s story written in the programme notes we would have been completely lost! – I wondered whether the cantata’s English text might have been somehow projected for all to see?

A good thing it was that the performance was so very atmospheric in an overall sense, its sequences so convincingly characterised, with the musicians conveying to us the different moods of the action and the feelings of the characters, albeit in a somewhat generalised way. From the beginning the story’s mystery and magic was conjured up by the dark sounds, the swirling mists and eerie lines preparing us for the strangeness of the events about to unfold, singers and players held in firm dynamic control by Marc Taddei’s direction, the lines replete with the composer’s characteristic rhythms and folkish figurations, then bursting into action as the hunt was portrayed by the fugal writing, with the story’s “nine sons, splendid offspring” whom their father had brought up and trained “for the savage mountains, with hunting skills”. As the sons pursued their quarry, the music underwent a wondrous change – “….they found “a graceful bridge showing magic deertracks” –  in crossing the bridge, the sons were changed by this same magic into stags – “the splendid hunters thus became the hunted”.

When the father, searching for his lost sons, found the stags, he raised his rifle to shoot one of them, the music agitating as the choir cried out repeated warnings, prompting the stag to speak with the voice of the son to his father, cautioning him not to shoot – such splendid singing, here, from tenor Amitai Pati, fully equal to the demands of the writing, with the ringing, heroic tones required from the character. The choir introduced the bass soloist Christian Thurston’s softer-grained voice as the father, pleading for his sons to return home to their mother, to “lanterns lit”, and to “goblets of wine” – but the son replied that they could never return home to these things, as their antlers “are wider than your doorway” and that now “they can drink their fill only from clean mountain streams”.

The text then reverted to the story’s beginning for the choir to tell the narrative once again, the voices producing some beautifully-modulated phrases, conveying such longing, and (as on every occasion I listened to a recording) bringing tears to the eyes of this listener as the fate of both the nine stags and their bereft parents were so very movingly reiterated. Though Bartok described this music as embodying “his most profound credo”, he left others to wonder at what he might have meant to convey through the story……he was evidently very much at home with nature, spending a good deal of his time out of doors, avowing nature’s freedoms as opposed to the different kinds of cruelties of civilisation – in this respect the story was a kind of “cautionary tale”, the sons becoming the hapless victims rather than the perpetrators of crimes against living things, and against nature in general, and the father reaping the pitiless price of his own exploitative attitude towards creatures in the wild.

Despite the difficulties concerning the text, the overall impression conveyed by the performance to this listener gave the experience of hearing the work a lasting value beyond words. And it was a perfect foil for what followed in the concert’s second half – nothing less than Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, the composer’s marvellously uninhibited settings of a hedonistic paean to life’s pleasures and sorrows in the form of a collection of anonymous medieval verses which have survived the ravages of time and circumstance in order to delight present-day sensibilities and (in places) console vissicitudes alike!

Having reviewed an Orpheus performance of this work as recently as September 2019 –


I’m finding it hard to escape the feeling (from memory) that there could be a lot of repetition in my comments regarding the singing, though as the previous performance involved the Orchestra Wellington Percussion Ensemble rather than the full orchestra, there will be “tweaks” of different emphasis here and there. One detail I had forgotten until I accessed the earlier review was that a SCREEN was used on that occasion to “project” the English translations of the words during the Orff! – I rest my case regarding the Bartok (see paragraph 3 above), this time round!

Another repetitive refrain from yours truly concerns the tempo taken by Marc Taddei for the opening “O Fortuna” on this occasion, something about which I find myself seemingly pushing a fairly lonely critical furrow in opinionating that most conductors take the sequence excessively quickly, given the out-and-out “lamenting” nature of the text! – however, the sheer energy of Taddei’s and the orchestra’s performance on this occasion was admittedly breath-catching, and impressive in its way! Still, the real enjoyment of the performance for me began with “Primo vere” (In Springtime), the bright, piping percussion and silvery winds framing the singing so fetchingly, and the ambience wonderfully spacious in the wake of the work’s almost “blitzkrieg” opening! I liked, too, Christian Thurston’s world-weary baritone solo “Omnia Sol temperat “, the character perhaps seeming a little tired of excessive drinking and whoring, and looking to the spring for renewal!

After the bell had resoundingly lingered at the conclusion of “Ecce gratum”, great percussive crashes heralded the “Dance”, played with a rhythmic verve that almost lifted us out of our seats with the energy of it all. Following the imposing beginning to “Floret Silva” the charm of the subsequent exchanges sounded well-nigh irresistible, as was the women’s plaintive singing in the “Shopkeeper, give me the colour” plea for an “aid” with which to capture a younger lover. The “Slow Dance” wove its spell of sensuous languidity, complete with nostalgically-sounding brass, which left us, like the hapless Faust, about to exclaim “How fair this spot” and looking to remain in damnation! – however the strumming strings woke us from the dream (the men’s voices, too, were a bit slow on the uptake at first with their “Swaz hie gat umbe” at the start of the Round Dance!) But what balm for the senses were the women’s voices in the interlude, before the strings took up the strumming once again! And what brilliant brass playing with which to conclude the sequence, as befitted the “surprise appearance” of the Queen of England, which concluded the first part!

Christian Thurston’s soft-grained voice did its best with “Estuans interius”, and “Ego sum abbas”, both sections calling for fiercer declamations, though he did better with the Abbot of Clucany’s piteous cries of “Wafna!”, accompanied by earth-shattering percussion outbursts! In between came the heart-rending “Song of the Roasted Swan”, with tenor Amitai Pati reappearing, and straightaway “nailing” the unfortunate bird’s anguish, though I thought the men’s voices a tad reticent in their ”Miser, miser!” rejoiners at the end of each verse.  Fortunately they moved their throttle up several notches for the incredibly vigorous “In taberna quando sumus” – the drinking song to end all drinking songs! Especially telling, I thought, was the darkness of it all, with the more sinister utterances as compelling as the clangorous ones!

What a change, as the scene shifted to “The Court of Love”, with everything cool and fresh once more – a superb evocation! The Wellington Young Voices sounded as they looked – bright, eager and innocent, followed by Amelia Berry’s silver-toned “Siqua sine socio”, beautifully supported by the winds. Christian Thurston’s soulful “Dies nos et omnia” came over well, with a properly pathetic-sounding  falsetto and a po-faced descent at the end, the self-communing aspect ruefully conveyed.

As for Amelia Berry’s “Stetit puella”, with those melismatic “Eias’ at the end of each verse, well who would not have fallen in love with her by the time she had finished floating the second one towards and all around our helpless sensibilities? Marc Taddei then took “Circa mea pectora” at a tremendous lick, the repeated Mandaliets almost whizzing into orbit at the end of each verse! The men-only chorus “Si puer cum puella” got a terrific response from the voices here, vigorous and clear-toned, with baritone Christian Thurston characterfully spurring them on, the succeeding “Veni, veni venias” giving the sequence even more visceral excitement, the conflagration spreading from the voices to the orchestra with what seemed like animal energy!

We needed settling down for a moment after that, Amelia Berry’s “In trutina” giving us a precious sequence of gorgeously-shaped singing, the top notes perhaps not as free as in the previous solo, but the descents as graceful and seductive as could be. “Tempus est locundum” then burst in, the children’s choirs (in two parts on either side of the platform) bobbing up and down to sing their refrains by turns with the baritone, the final time all together! This time, at “Dulcissime”, Amelia Berry’s ascent was breath-taking, the line positively snow-capped! – and her final phrase, dream-like and enraptured, immediately put me in mind of soprano Emma Fraser here in the same hall in 2014 who had at that time put me in mind of the incomparable Lucia Popp! What more can one say?

The penultimate “Blanchefleur and Helen” from choir and orchestra made an overwhelming impact straight afterwards (but I forgot to listen for the ringing bell, of which I’m terribly fond!). Whether there or no, we were summarily returned to the mercies of the Empress of the world, “Luck”, with the same massive percussive chords and driving energies as the work had begun with, what now seemed an age ago! Naughtily, but forgiveably. Marc Taddei “held onto” the work’s final chord, asking for more from his singers and players, and, excitingly, getting what he wanted! – a resplendent ending to a remarkable performance and a wonderfully adventurous concert!





Jonathan Lemalu and Virtuoso Strings blaze forth in Porirua’s Te Ata Festival

Virtuoso Strings  – O Matou Malaga (Our Voyage), with Jonathan Lemalu

Jonathan Lemalu (bass)
Nina Noble (trumpet) / Elijah Futi (piano) / Martin Riseley (violin)
Kitty Sneyd-Utting/Jillian Tupuse (violin, vocals) /Toloa Faraimo (concertmaster)
Rochelle Pese Akerise (violin) Benjamin Sneyd-Utting (‘cello)
Glenview School Choir and friends
Virtuoso Strings, Sinfonia for Hope
Andrew Atkins (conductor)

Te Rauparaha Arena, Porirua

Saturday, 22nd February 2020

Though the two events weren’t directly related, this heart-warming, youth-driven classical music event in Porirua involving Jonathan Lemalu and the Virtuoso Strings flew in the most appropriate and timely way right in the face of attitudes and rationales voiced by certain forces who had recently proposed the closure of RNZ Concert, the public network’s classical music station. Though on the face of things driven by demographic concerns (RNZ Concert’s replacement station, we were told, represented “a new music “brand” to reach a wider, younger audience”) the proposed change sadly reflects a world-wide trend involving governments in the process of defunding these “creative” activities regarded by official bean-counters as “non-profitable”, with art- music everywhere having to fight to justify its existence. Because a lot of people these days simply aren’t exposed to any classical music the latter is regarded as elitist and the preserve of “old white people”, although the “cheap-shot” by a certain commentator characterising RNZ Concert-listeners as “privileged cardigan-wearers” does seem to have backfired of late! A spirited demonstration in the grounds of Parliament on Monday 24thmade the reactions of the classical station’s loyal listeners to the proposals absolutely clear to the Government  – “Set up your new “Youth Station” by all means, but don’t cannibalise our RNZ Concert in the process!”

The perfect answer to the spurious claim of lack of significant youth involvement in classical music was provided by both performers and their audience at the Te Rauparaha Arena, Porirua’s “O Matou Malaga – Our Voyage” event, a concert featuring the artists listed above in the opening presentation of Te Ata, an “interactive cultural festival for young people in Porirua”, one sponsored by the 2020 New Zealand Festival of the Arts. Virtuoso Strings, based in Cannons Creek, Porirua, is a charitable trust which provides free music tuition and instruments to students at low decile schools in Porirua East, involving over 300 Porirua East students over the past year alone, and establishing a youth and community orchestra which has performed in many community events. Last year the orchestra toured Northland giving concerts in various centres; and a String Octet from the group  performed in Auckland during August at the National Chamber Music finals in the Town Hall, capturing the People’s Cholce Award in doing so (playing the “Goodnight Kiwi” piece by composer Craig Utting referred to below).

Grammy Award-winning bass Jonathan Lemalu is the Patron of the Virtuoso Strings Orchestra, intent on fostering the talents of the young performers, and helping individuals learn from the skills of making music, and in doing so, enrich their own lives and that of their families and community. The orchestra’s founders, Elizabeth Sneyd and Craig Utting, began the group in 2013, and have, with the help of the Virtuoso Strings Charitable Trust, former Board member Siang Lim and current members James Faraimo, Paul Setefano and Luamanuvao Dame Winnie Laban built a successful and flourishing music scheme which today is an integral part of the Porirua Community. The centrepiece of the concert’s first half on this occasion was in fact a work originally written (and arranged especially for this ensemble) by Craig Utting, a beautiful piece called “Goodnight Kiwi”, which I’d heard performed before, and here was presented as an orchestral work, with the original Octet “wrapped” in extra orchestral ambience, an attractive and atmospheric “variant” on what I’d encountered and enjoyed so much last year.

Before the concert Sir Roderick Deane welcomed us and introduced the performers, after which Jonathan Lemalu took the stage, announcing, after a few introductory remarks, that “In the beginning there was just one piano” – which was the signal for the pianist Elijah Futi to hurl forth, firstly, a keyboard version of the well-known 20thCentury-Fox signature-tune, and then gradually morph through some Gershwin-type rhythm-‘n-blues impulses (apparently excerpts from the theme music to the TV show “The Simpsons”!) and into the Grieg Piano Concerto’s first movement, accompanied gorgeously by the strings! From this grew a sequence devised and composed by Craig Utting, running the entire length of the concert’s first half, and whose sounds were accompanied by images assembled and presented by Moses Viliamu and Kitty Sneyd-Utting.  Jonathan Lemalu’s commentary  words stressing “solace” and “companionship” accompanied some Vaughan Williams-like “Greensleeves” fragments, the poignantly-phrased solo cello (Benjamin Sneyd-Utting) joined by violins sweetly descanting a counterpoint.

Then, at the announcement “Virtuoso Strings was born”, it seemed almost as if Shostakovich had come amongst the tumult, and gone “pasifika”,  with drums excitedly roaring forth as first, but the strings then underpinned the rhythm with swaying single notes, and calmed the excitement, allowing an ethereal atmosphere to settle over the ambience, with Kitty Sneyd-Utting’s wordless voice a stratospheric strand in the mix. It led seamlessly to an invocation of “Travelling” together and on individual journeys, characterising the players’ both touring with the orchestra and developing their individual skills, Lemalu singing a text written by Adrienne Jansen, asking the question “What shall I give you to take on this journey?”

Te Rangirua o Toiri was a forceful outpouring from acoustic and electric strings, piano and percussuion, in accordance with Lemalu’s words: – Te galu afi mua vaka! Oi Aue! Te lakilua! (“The first wave of fire!”), the music originally written by Utting for the Black Grace Dance Company to perform accompanied by inexperienced orchestra players needing plenty of electric and percussive support!  After this, the song Lota Nu’u, referred to by various people as Samoa’s second Nationa Anthem, was lullabic in effect, well chosen in this case by Gillian Deane, the music’s mood heightened by the singer’s suddenly raising the song’s emotional temperature with a single-toned upward modulation – a place where the request at the concert’s beginning for no applause before the interval was severely tested!

“Moving “with confidence to their own beat”, the players took Lemalu’s enjoiner to heart, the string-players augmenting the percussive outpourings with energetic angularity, the tumult assuming a kind of “thorn between two roses” character as it turned out, the speaker signalling the final homecoming with the words “The sound of our kiwis were heard”, and the leading strings standing to play Utting’s haunting “Goodnight Kiwi” set of variations. This was most engaging – we relished a remarkably free-ranging exploration by the players of tone, texture and rhythm, setting cosy nostalgia against zany humour, and rhythmic abandonment against semi-macabre disintegrations, the lump-in-throat “Hine e hine” melody flitting between the gaps at first, then sustained by the haunting voice of Jillian Tupuse, allowing her tones a variety of colourings and giving the music a “sliding”, Salvador Dali-like “do I wake or sleep?” aspect! –  all backdropped most poignantly by the original “Goodnight Kiwi “footage from TV One’s original close-down ritual – so very moving!

The programme’s second half was just as rich in a more variegated way, consisting of instrumental, orchestral, vocal and choral pieces designed to sound and celebrate the skills, both technical and musical, of players connected with the Virtuoso Strings. Introduced by the Trust’s chairman, James Faraimo,  the music of the half began with Handel’s The Trumpet Shall Sound, sung, of course by Lemalu (in excellent voice), and featuring the trumpet-playing of Nina Noble from Christchurch, a Deane Endowment scholar who will be attending the NZSM this year in Wellington – splendid playing from her, and a great and giving partnership between trumpet and voice, given that the  two are not normally positioned close together when the piece is performed as part of “Messiah”. Singers from Glenview School in Porirua East then performed a work by Christopher Tin, Kia Hora Te Marino, (Let Peace be widespread) with the added assistance from Isaac Stone and Tawa College’s Blue Notes Choir, making up a group of all ages, a full-blooded affirmation of positive feeling, the message punched out in no uncertain terms by an enthusiastic percussion section.

Came the Sinfonia for Hope’s appearance, the group consisting of musicians from various Wellington groups coming together to make music to raise funds for various humanitarian causes, and appearing on this occasion to support the Te Ata Festival’s celebration of youthful creativity. They firstly accompanied Lemalu in two characterful operatic arias, the subversive “La Calumnia” from Rossini’s “Il Barbiere di Siviglia”, and the boastful “O wie will ich Triumphiren” sung by the odious Osmin in Mozart’s “Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail”, each one allowing the singer ample scope for vivid characterisation, which was achieved here with considerable elan. Then the group’s concertmaster, Martin Riseley, gave us a virtuoso performance of the last movement of Vivaldi’s “Summer” Concerto from “The Four Seasons”  with stirring support from the Sinfonia’s players.

After this was the Virtuoso Strings’ turn to accompany their patron, in two items I recalled from the previous year’s “Some Enchanted Evening” concert at the Wellington Opera House – here Lemalu seemed to me in better voice, negotiating the demands of “Ole Man River” from Jerome Kern’s “Showboat” with sonorous ease, and bringing a deep nostalgic feeling to Richard Rogers’ “Some Enchanted Evening from “South Pacific”, the singer again, I thought, freer and more detailed than in that previous performance.

Luamanuvao Dame Winnie Laban, the current Pasifika Vice-Chancellor at Victoria University of Wellington, and a recently-appointed trustee of Virtuoso Strings Charitable Trust made the most of a brief opportunity to speak to us, conveying her congratulations to the concert’s organisers and performers, before both orchestras came on stage for the final item This was Danzón No.2 by Arturo Márquez, a work from Mexico that has nevertheless gained currency as a “signature tune” for the Venezuelan Simon Bolivar Orchestra – Craig Utting rearranged the work’s scoring to include double string orchestra and piano to make up for the original’s lavish wind-and-brass parts. It all worked brilliantly under the leadership of conductor Andrew Atkins, from the sultry danzón  beginning of the piece, through the interplay between instrumental solos and tutti passages, right to the spirited pay-off at the end. The reception accorded the musicians by the audience at the concert’s conclusion capped off the excitement and enjoyment of the music-making evident throughout – altogether a heart-warming demonstration of youthful skills and energies brought out by the power of music!

“Cello for Africa” at Porirua City a spectacular and moving multi-cultural collaborative event

The Sinfonia for Hope presents:
CELLO FOR AFRICA – a multi-institutional and multi-cultural collaboration
Director – Donald Maurice

Performing Individuals and Groups:
Te Kura Māori o Porirua (kapa haka and waiata)
Inbal Megiddo, Rolf Gjelsten, Jane Young (cellos) Stringendo (director: Donald Maurice)
Linkwood Guitar Duo (Jane Curry and Owen Moriarty)
Sam Manzana (Congo drum)
Virtuoso Strings (directors – Craig Utting and Elizabeth Sneyd)
Cellophonia (director – Inbal Meggido)
Amalia Hall (violin), Tinashe Chidanyika and Sarah Hoskyns (mbira)
Ruby Solly (taonga puoro), Hannah Neman (percussion)
Lyrica Choir, Kelburn Normal School (director – Nicola Holt)
Sinfonia for Hope  (conductor: Hans Huyssen)
Heleen du Plessis (‘cello)

Music by Antonio Vivaldi, Jack Body, Craig Utting, Anthony Ritchie, Hans Huyssen

Guest Speakers:
Dr.Taku Parai (Chairman, Kaumātua, Ngāti Toa)
Her Worship Anita Baker, Mayor of Porirua
Associate Professor Hon. Luamanuvao Dame Winnie Laban
Professor Sunny Collings, Dean and Head of Wellington Campus, University of Otago
Professor Donald Maurice, director of Sinfonia for Hope

Te Rauparaha Arena, Porirua City

Sunday, 24th November, 2019

“Cello for Africa” was, in the words of co-organisers Heleen du Plessis and Donald Maurice, an event designed “to bring people from different cultures together using music, and specifically, ‘cellos, to help create a platform for cultural interaction and human connection in support of causes in Africa”. The concert’s specific target was to raise funds for a school established in Nairobi five years ago, the Tamariki Education Centre, by New Zealander Denise Carnihan (who was present at the concert).

The event brought together four youth performance groups augmented by a goodly number of professional performers to perform, among other things, at least one world and one New Zealand performance premiere (not a Venn diagram in words – I meant TWO separate pieces!). New Zealand composer Anthony Ritchie contributed the world “first” with his piece “Kia Kaha Tamariki”, and South African composer Hans Huyssen the New Zealand premiere of his “Concerto for an African ‘Cellist”. There was a Vivaldi concerto for two ’cellos, a work for two guitars by Jack Body, and a piece for strings called “Goodnight Kiwi” by Craig Utting. And extending the diversity of the occasion were various haka and waiata performed by Te Kura Māori o Porirua Kapa Haka, a colourful sequence of Congo drumming by master percussionist Sam Manzanza, and a bracket of songs performed by Kelburn Normal School’s Lyrica Choir, directed by Nicola Holt.

We were welcomed at the outset by Dr Taku Parai, the Ngāti Toa Chairman and Kaumātua, accompanied by Ranei Parai and the splendid Te Kura Māori o Porirua Kapa Haka group. I was struck by the similarities in places between the sound of the Maori chant and some of the Gregorian chant I’d heard, with similar nuances and impulses in places, and underlined by the plangency of the young women’s tones – by contrast the haka passages were incisive and striking for different reasons! After the group had moved off to the side in the time-honoured manner, the Mayor of Porirua, Her Worship Anita Baker spoke to us, most impressively, drawing resonant parallels between Ntairobi in Kenya, and Porirua, here in New Zealand, and welcoming our support for the “Cello in Africa” venture. At this point I felt it would have been good for the event to have had a properly-appointed MC, merely to provide a kind of ongoing flow during the transitions between the numbers – the members of the Stringendo group simply “appeared” with the continuo ‘celllist, Jane Young, after whom came the two soloists for the next item, ‘cellists Inbal Megiddo and Rolf Gjelsten, together with conductor, Donald Maurice.

The two soloists began the work vigorously and adroitly, Megiddo taking the more assertive lead with Gjelsten seeming somewhat “laid back” of projection in reply, both in this way most effectively “terracing” the exchanges, while Jane Young’s continuo kept a watching brief over the exchanges. The tutti passages had great effect, with the extra weight of numbers producing a real “What does the crowd think?” kind of response in the sound’s impact – I’m certain the spontaneous applause at the first movement’s end would have underlined for the players our enjoyment. The slow movement featured the soloists and continuo only, the players again differentiating their lines via a fetching minor-key melody, with Megiddo’s sumptuous tones stimulating a thoughtful, more circumspect response from her companion. Some of the younger players weren’t expecting or had forgotten about a repeat in the music, as several moved to make a grand tutti entry at one point, but lowered their bows again when the music turned on its tracks and repeated a second-half section – very sweet! The younger players got their chance at the “true” beginning of the finale, playing the repeated theme as the soloists overlaid the  music with decorative passages, then intensifying the repetitions with a couple of modulations – all sounding very daring on their part, and garnering considerable applause at the end!

Next was a transcription for two guitars by Jack Body, made from recordings of the Madagascan “vahila”, a kind of “zither” made from a bamboo tube, and regarded by many as the country’s “national” musical instrument. A tumbling, rhythmically teasing piece called “Ramandriana”, it kept shifting its emphasis and thus varying its gait, the players, Jane Curry and Owen Moriarty, finding a wealth of variation of tone and timbre, which would have stemmed from the original instrument recording. (The duo should, I think, have been at least introduced to the audience as “The Linkwood Guitar Duo”, but, again, there was no “MC”.There were names and  information in the programme to be sure, but again, a welcoming voice would have, I think, made a more easeful difference.

We were delighted to welcome Sam Manzanza, the Congloese drummer, resident in New Zealand since the 1980s, where he’s been popularising traditional African music for a number of years with his AfroBeat Band – here he was performing solo with a single drum, and producing an amazing variety of sounds , accompanying his rhythmic patternings with various chants, and encouraging audience participation most successfully! Continuing on an African “wave”, we responded warmly to the next speaker, Associate Professor Hon. Luamanuvao Dame Winnie Laban’s congratulations to South Africa for winning the World Rugby Cup! Her acknowledgement of the work of the organisers of this evening’s concert also elicited an enthusiastic response, as did her confirmation of the Te Ata Festival Project for 2020.

Composer, and co-director of Virtuoso Strings, Craig Utting introduced his ensemble in preparation for the nest item, a version of TV NZ’s famous shutting-down-transmission piece, “Goodnight Kiwi”. Accompanied by the lowering of lights for the music’s beginning, the piece established an all-energies-spent feeling, the string figurations drowsy and  droopy at the phrase-ends, the fragments of one phrase answering another across the vistas created by the ensemble standing in a wide half-circle to perform. The music suddenly energised into angular waltz-like movement, the rhythms and themes lazily dovetailing, its bitter-sweet ambience underlined by a “wilting” kind of inclination, until finally a driving, toccatalike 7/4 rhythm awoke a voice singing the famous Hine e hine words, with heartfelt feeling – the singer beautifully maintained her line and steadiness of tone , right until darkness overtook the music and the players on the stage………

After an interval, and a welcome and brief address from the Dean and Head of Otago University’s Wellington Campus, Professor Sunny Collings, we were treated to composer Anthony Ritchie’s Kia Kaha Tamariki, a musical tribute to the Kenyan School whose founding five years ago in Nairobi has changed the lives of so many African children. The work (a world premiere) was performed here by Cellophonia (40+ cellists!) along with violinist Amalia Hall, cellist Inbal Megiddo, mbira players Tinashe Chidanyika and Sarah Hoskyns, taonga puoro player Ruby Solly, and percussionist Hannah Neman.

Ritchie’s work emphasised the ideas of exchange and accessibility of different musical sounds – a pity the orchestral “platform” was so far away from its audience, across the vistas of what was another performing-space, as it reduced the visceral effects of the more exotic instruments, such as a view of “how they were being played” (the Huyssen Concerto which concluded the evening had a similar kind of “removed” aspect to it – we were, indeed, in the same “space” as the performers, but arguably with too much “air” between us all!). Still, the sounds made an impact, and the conventional and exotic instruments created wholly unique worlds,  even if I felt the music sounded more “Caribbean” than African (ethnomusicologists may well apply to have my travel visas revoked upon reading that statement, though it’s just my (admittedly uninformed) opinion!).

Moments of “Elgarian-sounding” string-writing for the ‘cellos rubbed shoulders with more exotic rhythms and timbres as the non-string-players took up their instruments, the whole given an additional ambient context by Ruby Solly’s taonga puoro sounds. After a colourful sequence featuring the more exotic instruments alone, the drums intensified the rhythms and the cellos intoned an eminently singable/danceable melody, immediately suggesting a ready response in kind from listeners – the work was rounded off by a brief irruption of percussive impulse and gesture – altogether a direct and approachable tribute to a worthwhile cause.

There were hurryings and scurryings from certain people in preparation for the next item, the outcome seeming a little Houdini-esque as it turned out, with everybody’s attention focused on a completely different entrance to that through which the members of Lyrica (Kelburn Normal School Choir) and its director, Nicola Holt, finally appeared! – the group sang three songs bringing out poignancies and sweet colourings in the first two and plenty of rhythmic energy in the third, all accompanied on an electric piano most adroitly played by Nicole Chao, though I thought the second song, a lullaby could have just as effectively been performed voices-only. The choir recently took part in the Orpheus Choir of Wellington’s performance of Orff’s Carmina Burana, which I attended, and remember enjoying the children’s singing a great deal.

I wondered whether programming a fully-fledged three movement instrumental concerto at the end of a tumultuous evening was the best course, as the attrition rate among the audience was certainly noticeable at that stage, despite people’s best efforts – still, the work was meant to be symbolic of a fusion of voices and languages and cultures, and therefore judiciously placed at the concert’s climax. It represented a herculean effort of technique, emotion and crossover sensibility on the part of the solo cellist, Heleen du Plessis, who gave what sounded like a totally committed performance, from the “Partida”, or exploratory opening movement in which she enabled her instrument to “speak its language”, through the exchanges with other instruments over the second and third sections (the latter movement including a vocalised section from mbira-player Tinashe Chidanyika), and into the final Mapfachapfacha (in the Zezuru language, “a sudden arrival of many”), which sounded like a celebration of the coming together of diverse voices.

Composer Hans Huyssen’s use of non-standardised instruments (and the human voice) as constituent parts of such a formalised composition as a “concerto” has plenty of precedent in Western music, as witness, for example, the various instances of use of such things in the Mahler symphonies. And there were precedents of all kinds for the use of voices in such works as well, from Beethoven onwards, giving the words intoned by the orchestra players at the end of this work, referring to the music’s journey in search of a commonality amid the diversity, and its discovery within, their own unique resonances – the whole occasion generated so much warm feeling it was difficult to be analytical or judgemental regarding what we had heard! Its task, as far as I could discern from everybody’s response at the evening’s conclusion, was completed most successfully.










Inspirare’s partnership with Youth Choirs a resounding success

ILLUMINATIONS – Inspirare Choir, directed by Mark L.Stamper

PAUL BASLER – Missa Kenya
Richard Taylor (tenor) / Rachel Thomson, piano / Shadley van Wyk, horn
Jacob Randall, James Fuller, percussion
Wellington College Chorale / Men of Inspirare

IMANT RAMINSH – Missa Brevis
Maaike Christie-Beekmann (mezzo-soprano)/Rachel Thomson, piano
Queen Margaret College Chorale / Altissimi, Samuel Marsden Collegiate School, Karori
Women of Inspirare

JOHN RUTTER – Mass for the Children
Pasquale Orchard (soprano) / Daniel O’Connor (baritone)
Orchestra – Rebecca Steel, flute / Merran Cooke, oboe /Moira Hurst, clarinet
Leni Maeckle, bassoon / Shadley van Wyk, horn / Vanessa Souter, harp
Vicky Jones, bass / Michael Fletcher, organ / Grant Myhill , timpani
Jacob Randall and James Fuller, percussion
Wellington Young Voices / Metropolitean Cathedral Boys’ Choir

also featuring:
Helene Pohl, violin / Peter Gjelsten, violin
Hayden Nickel, viola / Rolf Gjelsten, ‘cello

CRAIG COURTENAY – Ukrainian Alleluia
Tejas Menon, TJ Shirtcliffe, guitars / Rachel Thomson, piano

Wellington College Chorale / Men of Inspirare

St.Mary of the Angels Church, Wellington

Saturday 15th September, 2018

This second concert that I’ve attended which featured the voices of Inspirare, a choir founded by their director, Mark L.Stamper, couldn’t have been more different from the first one (an inspirational performance of Sergei Rachmaninov’s All Night Vigil earlier this year), but was equally impressive in achieving what it had obviously set out to do. In the same venue as where the previous concert had held its audience spellbound, here was something more akin to a true community event, or even a school prizegiving, but with the intent of demonstrating to all and sundry what singers of all ages could achieve in tandem by dint of hard work and inspired direction.

A glance at the credits above will give the reader an idea of the variety of forces involved in this presentation – in itself it’s a tribute to both the organising skills and the visionary scope of Stamper that the different strands worked together so well. Though the audience was made up largely of people connected with the performers, a good many, like myself, were there primarily for musical reasons, drawn by the prospect of hearing repertoire which, if not familiar, certainly looked and sounded innovative and exciting, and especially if performed with a similar level of skill and intensity to that which for me made the Rachmaninov work so brilliantly.

It took but a few seconds of the opening item, a work by Z. Randall Stroope called “Tarantella” (curiously, not the usual 6/8 “spider-dance” tarantella rhythm one usually encounters in music so named), for us to register the performance commitment of the young singers of the Wellington College Chorale, the voices arrestingly full-toned from the beginning, and maintaining the rhythmic energies of the music’s running trajectories with great excitement, aided by handclapping and choreographic body movements, reflecting the adroit angularities of the accompaniments from the string players. I especially enjoyed the singers’ synchronised nodding heads indicating canonic or fugal entries, towards the piece’s conclusion.

We then got some sombre unaccompanied alleluias from the lower voices at the beginning of Craig Courtenay’s “Ukrainian Alleluia”, the tones beautifully hued with no lack of variety – the basses rich and sonorous, the tenors sweet and true. A lovely cascading effect was to be had at certain inner trajectory points (one of them finishing with an unscheduled slamming of a door somewhere that didn’t however disturb the singers’ flow, nor ruffle the harmonic clusters of the lines in the slightest!)….

An arrangement of the song “Cibola” brought out stunning attack on the song’s first note, thrown out by the singers almost defiantly – then, to rolling guitar accompaniments, the word “Cibola” was tossed every which way with remarkable dexterity, accompanied by vocal exclamations which added to the variety of colour and texture. Altogether these three works covered a lot of ground in both vocal and instrumental spheres, reflecting the conductor’s interest in variety and innovation as a means of securing maximum involvement in the music-making.

The same group of voices then prepared to present the first of the three major works on the programme, the “Missa Kenya” by Paul Basler. The composer worked as a teacher at the University of Kenyatta in Nairobi, thus coming into contact with a Kenyan vocal tradition whose elements he incorporated into his work, fused with Western traditions. We thus had a solo singer with chorus using elements such as what theorists term “call and response” and “call and refrain”, with the soloist and chorus sometimes overlapping. One would expect African folk music in general to be rhythmically rich, with rhythms sometimes playing alongside or against one another; and so it was here, particularly so in Basler’s treatment of the “Gloria”.

Originally written for mixed choir, the version of “Missa Kenya” performed this evening was for male voices only, with the Credo and Agnus Dei omitted. A strong unison beginning which had already showed off the strength and richness of these voices in “Cibola” was again employed at the “Kyrie’s” beginning, though broken soon after into different lines, ritualistic and dance-like, and underpinned by the composer’s instrument, the horn, and piano and percussion, though concluding with a return to more declamatory vocal gestures, counterpointed by the horn writing.

The “Gloria” I thought wonderfully “jivy”, the solo tenor and the choir exchanging phrases, and interspersing more declamatory passages. I liked the idea of the tenor (Richard Taylor) being more a “voice from the choir” rather than pushed too far to the front, even if his voice was occasionally swamped – he put across a true and songful account of his phrases, and the exchanges gave a more spontaneous feel to the music’s folk-like style. More ritualistic was the “Sanctus”, here joyful and bell-like, with the voices answered by splendid piano scintillations, the horn joining in with the voices in the raising-up of tones on high, most evident and celebratory in the “Hosannas”! Splendid!

There was a “changing of the guard” for the next item, Imant Raminsh’s “Missa Brevis” being sung by various female groups, the  Queen Margaret College Chorale, Altissime, from Samuel Marsden Collegiate School, all with the women’s voices from Inspirare, along with soloist mezzo-soprano Maaike Christie-Beekmann, and accompanist Rachel Thomson. Though written for a children’s choir, the work could also be sung by women and children. Beginning with the “Kyrie”, the work opened beautifully with a canonically-repeated “Kyrie” phrase, before the soloist entered with “Christe” – all very impassioned, with the choir supporting the soloist and the top notes made by the children’s group simply breathtaking in effect! When the “Kyrie ” returned with its canon-like phrases, the mezzo-soprano sang a descant-like line in accompaniment.

Contrasting with this was the “Gloria” with its toccata-like piano introduction, generating great expectation and excitement from the voices, rising to a pitch with Glorificamus te. Christie-Beekman’s rich mezzo gave us a heartfelt Gratias agimus tibi, answered by the choir, after which the heart of the movement was laid open with the sombre processional beginning at Qui tollis peccata mundi by the soloist, accompanied wordlessly by the choir up to Miserere, where the choir repeats Qui tollis – all very dark and intensely moving, with the concentration beautifully sustained, and reaching a climax with Miserere nobis, after which the prayer occasioned a brief calm, here, blown away by the attention-grabbing Quoniam, whose agitations led to a dancing fugue at Cum sancto spiritu, the singers exulting more and more vigorously until reaching a joyous Amen!

The Inspirare women’s voices added their strength and colour to the “Sanctus” – all most mellifluously realised, other-worldly in atmosphere, with stratospheric swayings and celestial harmonies thrown into relief by a dancing Hosanna in excelsis. Christie-Beekman’s voice ennobled the “Benedictus”, with Rachel Thomson’s piano practically orchestral in its support, while at the Hosanna’s reprise the music simply “took off”, giving the church’s acoustic a proper workout!

“Agnus Dei” was a properly concerted effort, solemn at the beginning, with the idiom straightforwardly melodic, and, quite unexpectedly, what sounded like a solo oboe accompanying the voices most affectingly at the repeat of the opening. Christie Beekman led the third “Agnus Dei” into Dona nobis pacem, the children’s choir positively radiant-sounding when joining in, contributing to a resounding and moving conclusion from the whole ensemble.

In welcoming us back for the concert’s second half, Mark Stamper reiterated a request for the audience to allow the separate Mass movements of what was to follow to continue uninterrupted, and to save its applause for the end – part of the initial confusion was, I think, having the three separate pieces at the concert’s beginning, which as stand-alone works each deserved audience acclamation, but then got us into an “applaud everything” mode. The message, diplomatically worded, was re-received, and, I think, understood.

So, to the “Mass of the Children”, a work completed by John Rutter in 2003. Associated with the loss of his son in an accident in 2001, the work represented at the time a kind of “return” to the life of a composer, but also a tribute in tandem to his “formative” experience as a pupil of Highgate School chosen to sing in Britten’s War Requiem under the baton of the composer himself. Rutter wanted to create something that might replicate a bringing together of children and adult performers “in a similar enriching way”. This performance thus brought together the Wellington Young Voices, the Metropolitean Cathedral Boys’ Choir and Inspirare with two young soloists, soprano Pasquale Orchard and baritone Daniel O’Connor, and a chamber orchestra.

A radiant, Respighi-like opening to the work brought forth luminously shimmering instrumental textures, introducing the children’s voices, not with the Kyrie, as is usual in a Mass, but with lines from a seventeenth-century hymn written by Bishop Thomas Ken – “Awake my soul and with the sun”, after which the adult choir sang the “Kyrie” – here the flowing lines reminded me in their manner of Faure’s Requiem, with its fluent blending of lyricism and impassioned declamation. The children’s voices sang “Christe Eleison”, with accompaniments I found glittering, and a touch spectral, followed by the return of “Kyrie Eleison” with soprano and baritone joining with the choir, Pascale Orchard’s voice here strong and vibrant, and Daniel O’Connor’s sonorous and steady. At the end the organ made a deep, resoundingly satisfying impression.

Growing in energy and light, the “Gloria” rose from the depths, its rhythmic trajectories enlivening the performers and their words, children and then adults echoing the opening cries, then revelling in the jazzy angularities leading to Et in terra pax with its cherubic bell-like chants for the children’s voices. Soprano and baritone exchanged phrases at Domine Deus Rex caelestis with the music at Filius patris taking on the character of a floating ostinato as the music arched its way  through Qui tollis peccata mundi, the lines nicely balanced by the soloists throughout right up to Miserere nobis. A vibrant return to life came with Quonian, the music jazzy and energetic in these performers’ hands, carrying us away with its exuberance to the end.

The gently glowing wind arabesque-like solos brought in the “Sanctus” presented by the choir like a gently-tolling bell, the voices rising to impassioned tones at the Hosannas, and again from the Pleni sunt caeli onwards. What a gorgeous panoply of wind sounds accompanying the children’s singing of “Benedictus”, itself so affecting with those innocent, ethereal tones – such drama in the contrast between adult and children’s voices, here! As the soloists sang the Benedictus as a duet, the instruments provided heart-easing counterpoints to the music’s simple intensities.

If the impression thus far was of a composer who preferred light to darkness, the grimmer, haunted opening of the Agnus Dei  dispelled the notion for the setting’s duration – the organ’s tones of disquiet, the haunted strings and winds, and the chromatic lines of the voices in their Agnus Dei utterances instigated currents of lament that gradually built to great waves, reinforced by tubular bells sounding a tocsin of gloom – perhaps one might regard the introduction at this point of the children’s choir with an angelic setting of William Blake’s “Little Lamb who made thee?” as much an unsubtle contrast as a masterstroke (critical opinions vary on the topic!), but the very sound of the voices here acted like balm to the sensibilities, irradiating the gloom with light and hope, until the music again darkened as the voices took up the repeated pleas of Miserere nobis.

Came the work’s final section, the “Dona Nobis pacem”, beginning with somewhat Elgarian string-phrases, and a baritone solo (supported by beautifully-turned wind solos), Rutter setting the words of a prayer “Lord open thou mine eyes that I may see” by Lancelot Andrews (1555-1626) to a nicely-turned melody, delivered confidently and strongly by Daniel O’Connor, then enabling the soprano to affectingly carry the melody further with different words, those of a 5th-century text called St.Patrick’s Breastplate.

The work’s final section featured the adult voices (choir and soloists) reiterating the words “Agnus Dei” and  “Dona nobis pacem” while the children’s voices soared above the chant with Thomas Ken’s “Glory to thee, my God this night” set to Thomas Tallis’s well-known canonic melody, the music gently subsiding into silence at the end, everything, as throughout the work, most sensitively balanced and controlled by Mark Stamper.

There could be no doubt as to the commitment and involvement of all the musicians throughout this ambitious presentation, one whose on-going strength of purpose, depth of interpretation and skill of execution represented a resounding and well-deserved tribute to the various choirs and choir directors involved, to the soloists and instrumentalists, and to Inspirare Choir and Mark Stamper,  its “inspirational” Music Director.




Excellent choral concert from three young Wellington choirs and the New Zealand Youth Choir

Triple C: A Capital Singfest

Choirs: FilCoro (Wellington Filipino Choir); Wellington Young Voices (children’s choir); Wellington Youth Choir; New Zealand Youth Choir

Music by Richard Rodgers, John Rutter, Bob Chilcott, Stephen Leek, Antonio Lotti, Charles Wood, Ben Parry, Lassus, Leonie Holmes, Brahms, Tuirina Wehi, David Hamilton

Opera House, Manners Street

Sunday 9 September, 3 pm

This concert by mainly young choral singers was promoted as ‘A celebration of great choral and ensemble singing’. Each choir was to sing alone and with one or two other choirs and finally all joined to sing David Hamilton’s Dance-song to the Creator.

The publicity also remarked on the choice of venue: the gorgeous Opera House. And of course I share their affection for one of the few remaining turn-of-the-century theatres, splendid in the detailed and beautiful restoration of both foyer and auditorium; where I had my first teen-aged experiences of live theatre and opera.

The concert began with the Filipino choir, Filcoro, singing an indigenous Tagalog language song rather enchantingly, and then a couple of Richard Rodgers’ loveliest songs, ‘You’ll never walk alone’ (from Carousel) and ‘Climb every mountain’ (The Sound of Music). Under Mark Stamper, they showed they had nothing to learn about singing Broadway musical.

They were then joined by Wellington Young Voices, a delightful group of young singers – aged eight to fourteen – to sing John Rutter’s ‘Look at the World’; voices from Filcoro took the first verse with a delightful air of timidity and all singers joined for the chorus.

As with so much in the concert, here was a fairly slight piece that gained through being taken seriously.

Setting the pattern for comings and goings, the Philippines choir then left and Young Voices alone for two songs by Bob Chilcott: ‘Laugh Kookaburra’ and ‘Like a Singing Bird’, both light, lilting, almost dancing, through tricky harmonies. Composers like Chilcott, Eric Whitacre, Morten Lauridsen and Rutter, among others including several New Zealanders, have brought about a revival of contemporary choral music which for some decades has seemed doomed by avant-garde pressures.

The Wellington Youth Choir, which had the honour of singing with the Orpheus Choir in the previous evening’s Orchestra Wellington performance of Verdi’s Requiem, arrived to sing another challenging song, Monkey and Turtle by Stephen Leek, that also made demands on their part singing.

The Wellington Youth Choir alone, under Jared Corbett, could tackle something even more sophisticated; an eight-part setting of the Crucifixus by Antonio Lotti, a Vivaldi and Bach contemporary, and then a spiritual ‘Get away, Jordan’, another piece that called for well managed part singing, and the choir sounded in extremely fine form.

New Zealand Youth Choir
The New Zealand Youth Choir then joined the Wellington Youth Choir to sing Oculi omnium by Charles Wood, English composer 10 or 15 years younger than Parry and Stanford. The choir did not appear on stage but the conductor drew attention to them in the grand circle, from which the voices gained an ethereal quality.

(My colleague Rosemary Collier has added a gloss about Oculi omnium.

“‘Oculi Omnium’ was a tribute to Peter Godfrey for many years the conductor of the choir,. It was always sung as a grace at choir residential weekends and at the NZCF weekend ‘Sing Aotearoa’ and other functions.  And a big massed choir of which I was a part, sang it at his memorial service.  It’s a beautiful piece with gorgeous harmonies.)

The second half was devoted to the NZYC, the most experienced of the four choirs, starting with Ben Parry’s Flame, with men and women separated, right and left. It clearly had a religious significance, suggesting at first a flickering flame, slowly, increasing in intensity and complexity.

I hadn’t heard of Parry. This is what I found on the Internet: Ben Parry (born 1965) is a British musician, composer, conductor, singer, arranger and producer in both classical and light music fields. He is the co-director of London Voices, Assistant Director of Music at King’s College, Cambridge, director of the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain.

And further, Rosemary Collier added: Ben Parry has been to NZ.  I rather think he was adjudicator at the Big SIng last year or the previous one.

So, a very appropriate figure to open the NZYC’s contribution at this concert. Conducted by David Squire, its performance challenges were most sensitively handled.

Then came Lassus’s Aurora lucis rutilat, in which the singers divided into two distinct four-part choirs and it was a delight, quite the contrary of the grim, ‘hell-firish’ words (which I looked up).

Leonie Holmes’s ‘Through coiled stillness’ was the first of a couple of New Zealand compositions. Its words were recited in both Maori and English, and the piece involved singing in both languages, in a musical idiom that had only subtle suggestions of a Maori musical influence, and which was neither too traditional nor too avant-garde. It was evidently good to perform.

Then came all four of Brahms’s Vier Quartette, Op 92 They are O schöne Nacht, Spätherbst, Abendlied and Warum?

Those of us who think we know Brahms pretty well (meaning orchestral, piano and chamber music and a dozen of the familiar songs), are always surprised to look at the huge list of his solo songs, part songs, choral works that he composed throughout his life, and I’d never come across these ones. They involved Michael Stewart at the piano; they were varied, though always hard to place in the appropriate emotional context and so not easy to sing. Clearly, they would form one of the choir’s principal repertoire works this year; and the choir demonstrated musical understanding and splendid technical competence.

The bracket ended with Waerenga-a-Hika, a narrative chorus arranged by Robert Wiremu, that tells of the story of the siege of the Waerenga-a-Hika pa, north-west of Gisborne, in 1865. A mixture of sombre chant, and a certain amount of lyrical song, with distinctly contrasting voices in English and Maori that varied between sophisticated melodic singing and traditional, haka-derived performance.

Finally, all four choirs reappeared to sing David Hamilton’s Dance Song to the Creator, syncopated and jazzy, under David Squire, with two pianists (Mark Stamper and Michael Stewart), and percussionist Dominic Jacquemard, accompanying.  And they all stayed to sing an encore, the familiar and always rather moving Ka Waiata Ki a Maria (composed by Richard Puanaki).

Though singing has suffered a huge retreat in the last couple of generations, from being a standard activity in both primary and secondary schools, and church choirs, it survives, rather unevenly spread, but the widespread existence of youth choirs and other choirs for young people helps to maintain its visibility – audibility.

But the art of singing and choral activity remain at an awful disadvantage in terms of being known about. The New Zealand Youth Choir and the Secondary Students’ choir can win extraordinary prizes in international competitions and yet be unnoticed by the media; at best given a 3cm paragraph at the bottom of page 8.

And so, it would have been good to see a larger audience for this rewarding and delightful concert.


Fabulous students choir fully prepared for Hong Kong choral festival in July

New Zealand Secondary Students Choir in Concert directed by Andrew Withington and Rachel Alexander

Accompanied by Brent Stewart (piano) and percussionists, with Elizabeth Andrew (soprano) and other soloists from the choir

Sacred Heart Cathedral

Saturday, 28 April 2018, 7.30pm

A rather damp, cool evening after days of beautiful, calm weather did not daunt family, friends and supporters of the choir; the church was packed.

The 55-member choir proved to be in great form, and well-trained in a diversity of choral music.  Their interpretations were always adapted to the style and age of music being performed.  Diverse tone and approach were sensitively observed.  I found myself writing down ‘men’ and ‘women’ for items where part of the choir only was singing; it was not easy to think that these were all teenagers still at school, such was their accomplishment.

Singing 19 diverse items in 9 different languages would be a major challenge for any choir; that this choir did it with aplomb after a week’s workshop in Wellington was astonishing.  The choir only meets during school vacations, not weekly like most adult choirs.  Even more surprising to mere adults is the fact that most items were sung without the musical scores, i.e. from memory.

The programme began with ‘Kanaval’ by Sydney Guillaume of Haiti, and was sung with great vigour and commitment in the Haitian Creole language, accompanied by various percussion instruments, and clapping at times.  It was a confident, joyful and effervescent performance, from memory.

The second item was conducted by assistant director and vocal consultant, Rachel Alexander.  It was ‘Prelude’ by Norwegian-American composer Ola Gjello, sung in Latin.  It featured chanting against long held notes, almost drones, held by other parts of the choir.  The piece consisted of ‘Exsultate’ and ‘Alleluia’.  Part of the text was sung by the female voices, later rejoined by the men.  There were blocs of pentatonic harmony.

The rearranged double choir then sang, with harpsichord, ‘Magnificat’ by Pachelbel; with soloists from the choir.  It was notable for the bright vocal sound and was one of the few items for which the choir required the printed scores.

It was followed by the beautiful ‘Lacrimosa’ from Mozart’s Requiem, in yet another formation, accompanied by the fluent piano of Brent Stewart, assistant director and accompanist.  A lovely subdued tone issued from the choir; a magnificent fortissimo was produced when required.

David Childs is a New Zealand composer; his ‘Salve Regina’ (in Latin) was sung unaccompanied and from memory.  A quite gorgeous, varied and attractive piece this; it had luscious harmonic clusters and a solo.  All the singing was very fine.  Again, dynamics were varied and beautifully controlled.

An evocative flute made an appearance in ‘Hine Ma Tov’, a Jewish hymn based on Psalm 133 (in Hebrew) by American Neil Ginsberg.  Delicious harmonies were present in the piece.  As elsewhere, the singers were spot-on together at the opening of the work and at cadences.  The male voices were more prominent in this item; the female voices were inclined to be a little strident at times.

‘Stemming’, by Swedish composer Hugo Alfvén (1872-1960) was in the Danish language, another unaccompanied item sung without scores.  It was followed by an Austrian folksong for tenors and basses: ‘Buana, geht’s tanzn’ performed with percussion accompaniment.  The voices were good and strong, the words clear; it was a polished performance.

The higher voices had their turn, with a song in English: ‘Bring me little water Sylvi’, by African-American Huddie Ledbetter (1888-1949), whose song ‘Goodnight Irene’ was all the rage when I was very young.  The rendition involved humming and clapping (“body percussion”).  The voices produced a pleasing silky tone.

The last item in the first half of the concert was ‘Unclouded day’, by American Rev. J.K. Alwood, arranged by Shawn Kirchner.  This gospel song featured counterpoint, fugue – and blue-grass musical style, making it an interesting item, sung unaccompanied by the full choir.

After the break (needed after the time sitting on those backless forms!) we had two items by the Puanaki whanau of Christchurch: both action songs accompanied by guitars.  ‘Pakipaki’ was first, and was most effective, the choir believable as a bunch of Maori warriors.  The second, ‘Te Mura o Te Ahi’, (The flame of the fire) was loud and exciting.  At first the choir was chanting rather than singing, then their utterances turned to dense harmony.  The whole was very rousing.

Still in Te Reo, the choir sang a waiata – the well-known ‘Hine e hine’ by Te Rangi Pai, unaccompanied, in an arrangement by Andrew Withington.  It was a most beautiful arrangement – I must say more so than another I heard recently.  This one was not pitched too high, so sounded more authentic and more mellow and lyrical.  Pronunciation was clear and accurate.

Two compositions by prolific American choral composer Eric Whitacre followed.  ‘The Seal Lullaby’ was accompanied by clear, flowing lines on the piano.  An enchanting piece, much of it was wordless, with the singers making ‘oo-oo’ sounds.  Certainly a soothing lullaby.

Then came ‘Cloudburst’, a much more extended piece.  It’s dramatic – but you can’t go away humming it.  There are many different vocal sounds, and many kinds of body percussion, plus piano.  Those words that are used are Spanish.  The sounds of rain, both gentle and stormy, were produced in various ways.  One of the most striking is thumb-clicking, which sounds exactly like big drops falling on wet ground.  A drum added thunder.

There are swarms of notes, words against humming, and some solo sections.  This difficult work was performed confidently and strongly; these singers are at a standard almost unbelievable for secondary school students.  This was a virtuoso performance.  I have heard the work once before, in Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul, where the ample resonance lost it the precision we had here.  The choir had sung this and some of the other items in a concert in Palmerston North in January.

The most appealing piece in the whole programme was ‘Spring Rain’ by contemporary Latvian composer Ëriks Ešenvalds, commissioned last year by the New Zealand Youth Choir and the New Zealand Secondary Schools Choir.  It was in English with guitar (Carson Taare) and a fine soprano soloist, Elizabeth Andrew, from Dunedin.  However, I did not find that her words were as clear as those of the choir.  As throughout the concert, rhythm, timing, intonation, consistent vowels and dynamics were all virtually faultless.  Everything was thoroughly musical.  This song could cause a tear or two well up by its sheer beauty, as rendered by this choir.

Now for something completely different…  a medley of songs from My Fair Lady, sung in harmony with piano.  A Cockney accent was used to effect where required, and the songs were sung with relish.  I thought ‘I’ve grown accustomed to her face’ was a little too legato for its character.  However, the rollicking arrangement by Andy Beck (USA) was a lot of fun.

The concert ended with another item in te reo, this time the well-known old cicada song ‘A Te Tarakihi’ by Ngati Maniopoto and Alfred Hill, arranged by Brent Stewart.  With a drum soloist, it was stirring stuff, though I thought, not only because scores were used, that it was not quite as thoroughly rehearsed as other items.  Finally a Samoan sequence arranged by Stephen Rapana: ‘Maia soma e/Malie Tagifa’.  Clapping and movement preceded the singing, which was conducted by a choir member (presumably Samoan).  Drum, action, change from standing to sitting and back to standing were all part of the performance.

Standing too for the audience – a standing ovation for this fabulous choir, who astonished mere adults with their skill, memory, and multi-lingual performance.  Bravo!  The choir is to travel to Hong Kong in July for an international choral festival and then to Shanghai; fund-raising is under way.



Wellington Young Voices weave their own magic at Old St.Paul’s

‘Magic in the air’

Wellington Young Voices, conducted by Christine Argyle and Anya Nazaruk, accompanied by Rosemary Russell

Old St. Paul’s, Thorndon

Sunday 3 December 2017, at 4pm

About 30 young singers between the ages of 8 and 14, 10 of them boys, performed a delightful programme to a substantial audience. The programme included four Christmas carols for the audience to sing with the choir.

The concert began with an attractive carol ‘Sing with the angels, Gloria!’, with words and music by Tawa music education supremo Shona Murray. The young singers soon showed that they were well-trained – not only musically; all their items were sung from memory. This item was conducted by Christine Argyle; she interspersed throughout the programme with assistant conductor, now to be Music Director, Anya Nazaruk, conducting some items. Throughout, Rosemary Russell was a supportive and sympathetic accompanist. The choir sang in parts here and elsewhere in the programme, almost always with accuracy and good musical effect, though sometimes there was a lack of expression and things became a little mechanical.

The choir then sang ‘What child shall come?’, more often known as ‘What child is this?’, sung with fine tone. It was followed by a piece entitled ‘Snowgum’, by Louise Pettinger, with soloists Clara Kennedy and Holly Martin, who sang in duet very well. A handicap was the inability of conductor Nazaruk in particular to speak loudly enough to be heard through much of the venue; I was sitting only three rows from the front, on the side, but picked up little of what she said. A microphone was provided for the children to sing into – it just gently amplified the young soloists voices; it would have been admirable to use it for the conductors to speak into also. Later, another microphone was used when speeches were made, particularly marking Christine Argyle’s retirement from the musical directorship.

The audience stretched its legs and vocal chords in singing ‘Deck the hall’, which was followed by ‘Amid the falling snow’ by Enya. A duet featured in this item also. Words here, and through much of the programme, were clearly enunciated. ‘African Noel’ by Dave and Jean Perry, was something different. Here, Rosemary Russell deserted the piano and played percussion, principally a drum. Anya Nazuaruk took over piano responsibilities for a bit, with ‘Walking in the air’ by Howard Blake, with a solo beautifully sung by Sophie Fulton. Her voice was very true, and for the most part her words were distinct.

John Rutter was the next composer; we heard his ‘Angels’ Carol’. Could there be a Christmas concert these days without an item from this prolific British choral composer?   There was pleasing tone from the choir and the two soloists, though expression was lacking somewhat. The first half ended with the audience joining in ‘Away in a manger’.

‘Sing for Joy’ by Handel opened the second half; this is a chorus from his oratorio Judas Maccabæus.   It was sung very well. ‘A maiden most gentle’ by Andrew Carter was sung in harmony, and again, the choir demonstrated that it really knew its repertoire.

After all had joined in ‘Once in Royal David’s city’, an arrangement of ‘Silent Night’ by Laura Farnell, entitled ‘On this still, silent night’ was presented. The excellence of the choir’s atttack in starting and ending phrases and pieces absolutely together was especially notable here. ‘Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer’ by Johnny Marks was not the most successful of duets, the singers’ intonation being frequently off the mark.

‘Hark the herald angels sing’ was sung by all, and then we had the speech and presentation from Chair Judy McKoy paying tribute to Christine Argyle’s work in founding then directing the choir; in fact being the driving force behind the venture. After Christine Argyle’s response, in which she paid tribute to numbers of people who had assisted, the choir ended the concert with an Austrian folksong ‘Song of farewell’ and ‘Holiday lights’ by Sally Albrecht and Jay Althouse. It was a fun piece, sung in the dark with flashlights making light patterns.

What a marvellous development this choir has been! Inspiring, the result of hard work, and hopefully setting young people on a path of enjoyment of and participation in music. Bravo, Christine and colleagues!

New Zealand Youth Choir delivers excellent concert, though absence of a major work regretted

Anthems, spirituals and songs
New Zealand Youth Choir, conducted by David Squire and Michael Stewart; soloists and narrators from the choir

Sacred Heart Cathedral

Sunday, 10 September 2017, 4pm

The cover of the programme appeared to be the poster advertising the choir, but I did not see it anywhere earlier as a poster, and a friend in the audience to whom I spoke after the concert had not seen any publicity either.  Both of us found few people we knew in the audience, which also pointed to a lack of publicity.

The Youth Choir comprises 50 voices.  A delightful feature of the concert was that members of the choir read, prior to each song, the text of the poems, or other texts relevant to the message of the song.  This helped the audience to follow the songs,  since neither the words nor any explanatory notes were printed.  There appeared to be a microphone where the speakers stood, but if it was such (and not solely for broadcast purposes), it was not switched on.  However, most of the speakers spoke sufficiently loudly and clearly for the majority of the words to be heard.  Likewise with the singing, the words were projected with clarity, on the whole.

Blend, balance and intonation were virtually impeccable throughout the programme, and attention to dynamics was salutary.

The first item was ‘Flame’ by Englishman Ben Parry, who is director of the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain, and has visited New Zealand.  The choir was spread around the four walls to sing this demanding piece, unaccompanied – as were all except for one item on the programme.  The music included clashing semi-tones, all perfectly in tune.  Gradually the piece built up to a rich, multi-strand tapestry; the fortissimo filled the church with sound.  When it ended, the choristers moved to the front of the church, intoning a chant.

Next was an old favourite of the choir, right from its early days: ‘Kyrie’ and ‘Heilig’ by Mendelssohn.  The rich tone produced by the choir made it sound a more mature choir (in years) than it is.   Incidentally, I found it curious that a timeline of the choir printed in the programme did not mention Guy Jansen (the choir’s founder, and first conductor, who was present) nor Professor Godfrey, who conducted it for a number of years.

Deputy Music Director of the choir, Michael Stewart, conducted ‘Aurora Lucis rutilat’ by Orlande de Lassus (or Orlando di Lassus if you prefer). This was more restrained in tone than the previous pieces.  The various parts were eminently clear and the antiphonal singing was most effective.  It was useful to have the Latin words translated in the spoken introduction.

Chris Artley’s ‘Agnus Dei’ was the 3rd prize winner in the inaugural International

Choral Composition Competition Japan 2015, and it was the choir’s next item.  The composer, English-born but long-time New Zealand resident, set the words from the Mass.  It was striking both melodically and harmonically, and the composer had set the words beautifully.  It was gorgeously sung, following the opening, which was spoken in Emglish.

Bruckner has featured quite frequently in the choir’s repertoire over the years.  ‘Christus factus est’ was preceded by the appropriate reading of two verses in English from the Biblical letter to the Philippians.  Rich harmonies, typical of Bruckner’s choral music were a feature, including sustained chords.  Impressive.

For a change of mood and territory, we heard ‘How to survive Vesuvius’ by Matthew Recio, a young American composer. The brief preparatory reading about the piece was a little too quiet for me to hear.  The piece involved a variety of vocal effects, including many plosives and interesting harmonic shifts.  The piece rendered the atmosphere of a disaster very well.

After the interval, the pieces were all in the English language.  First was ‘Through coiled stillness’ by New Zealand composer Leonie Holmes.  It started with a spoken poem, in Maori and English.  Sounds of the sea were most impressively produced by members of the choir and a woman soloist sang strikingly along with the choir for much of the piece.  Towards the end there were chimes – bells?  Small Asian cymbals?

English composer Gustav Holst’s arrangement of the folk song ‘I love my love’ was prefaced by several members of the choir speaking as inmates of the infamous Bedlam, making a chilling introduction to the song.  Its spirited ending made an upbeat conclusion in contrast to the depressing opening.  Another Englishman followed: Pearsall, whose ‘Great God of Love’ featured his typical harmony, with many gorgeous suspensions.

Thence to the United States, with two spiritual arrangements by William Dawson: ‘Soon ah will be done’ and another old favourite of the choir, ‘There is a balm in Gilead’.  The first was particularly notable for the beautifully controlled dynamics falling from fortissimo to pianissimo.  The introduction to the latter was not the poem of the song, but a contemporary description of the cruel treatment of slaves.  The performance featured three excellent soloists from the choir.

The only work accompanied by piano (Michael Stewart) was ‘Those Others’, by Rosa Elliott from Burnside High School in Christchurch, who was the winner of SOUNZ Composition Competition in 2015.  It was a very fine piece with an enchanting accompaniment, and soloists.

The concert ended with Cole Porter’s ‘Ev’ry time we say goodbye’, a close harmony number, sung with appropriate style and pronunciation.

The concert was not long – about an hour and ten minutes, if the interval is not included.  While the choir sang extremely well, I felt a lack of something substantial; all the pieces were short, with little relationship between them, although they amply showed off the different styles and techniques the choir has mastered.  Perhaps the organisers were aware of the discomfort of sitting for long on the forms that pass for pews at Sacred Heart?



Excellent performances of UK and US music from Wellington Youth Choir

Wellington Youth Choir conducted by Jared Corbett; Deputy Musical Director: Penelope Hooson; accompanist: Gabriel Khor

Songs from Britain and the United States

Metropolitan Cathedral of the Sacred Heart

Friday 9 June, 7 pm

The Sacred Heart Cathedral is a good place for singing – for both singers and listeners, and so it was especially good to hear this generally well-schooled and enthusiastic young choir, in a wide variety of songs.

The British song tradition
The concert began with an account of God Save the Queen, which prompted no one to stand, because it was clearly an arrangement, and a rather entertaining arrangement of the anthem, by Tahlia Griffis and Will King, two choir members. Each of the later, unfamiliar stanzas took the form of a variation in a musical sense: a nice clean performance, part-singing well balanced, and the last verse especially amusing and harmonically quirky, without becoming conspicuously republican in spirit.

For Gunnar Erikson’s arrangement of Purcell’s charming Music for a While, the choir divided into a group of eight soloists with the words, against humming by the main body of the choir.  There followed other songs by English composers, generally in a folk song vein, by Herbert Howells and perhaps Elgar, and two songs from Britten’s Ceremony of Carols. (I’m not sure whether either the Howells or the Elgar was dropped, as I caught only half of what the conductor said as he introduced the group – nor did assistant conductor Penelope Hooson speak distinctly enough for me to catch all her remarks). Whether Howells’s In Youth is Pleasure or Elgar’s The Snow, it was a delightful performance, lively and luminous.

Penelope Hooson took charge of strong sopranos plus very distinct altos in a lovely rendering of Britten’s ‘Ballulalow’ and the lively ‘This Little Babe’ from his Ceremony of Carols.

There followed familiar folk songs: Bobby Shaftoe, Londonderry Air, and two songs from John Rutter’s arrangements in Five Traditional Songs: ‘O Waly, Waly’ and ‘Dashing away with the Smoothing Iron’. There were ecstatic harmonies and a penny whistle in Bobby Shaftoe, hard to keep in tune; tuning was also a challenge in Danny Boy though that seemed to increase its charm.

Rutter’s setting of ‘O Waly Waly’, employing pure, unison women’s voices to begin, was a fine and successful test of technique and accuracy; the ‘Smoothing Iron’ was a more traditional setting.

Bob Chilcott’s The Making of the Drum, quite extended – maybe 10 minutes? – called on some unusual tricks like rubbing hands together, humming and noisy breathing and later, less unorthodox singing like a four-note motif from women and melancholy part-singing by the men; but the words and the musical sense of the work escaped me, even in passages that were more orthodox. One of those occasions where the innocent listener perhaps tries too hard to find what the composer does not intend to supply or for the audience to worry about.

Songs from the United States
United States songs occupied the second half. More of them were traditional or derived from jazz or Broadway, than in the case of the British songs.

It began with the choir disposed around the side and cross aisles; the singing spread from the front and slowly took hold throughout, so that sections of the choir seemed to come from unexpected quarters as they sang an arrangement of the Appalachian folk  song Bright Morning Star.

Penelope Hooson then directed the spiritual Didn’t my Lord Deliver Daniel and Deep River, both in Moses Hogan’s arrangements. They were well balanced among the sections of the choir, sustaining a uniform tone.

My notes at this stage remarked on what I began to find a bit inauthentic: country or bluesy rhythms turned salon music, which overlies most concertised American folk music. Probably unfair, but my feeling at that moment.

Nyon Nyon by Jake Runestad was new to me; the high-lying words sung by women while men murmured below them, with strange vocalisations, nasal sounds, offered what might be called, perjoratively, noises as distinct from music, which can soon induce weariness rather than delight.

Looking for background on the composer of the next two songs, from Three Nocturnes by Daniel Elder, I found this comment about Ballade to the Moon : “Marked Adagio Misterioso, this evocative work has been appearing on festival lists all over the country, and for good reason – it is an important contribution to the choral repertoire.” (https://www.jwpepper.com/Ballade-to-the-Moon/10283255.item#/).

I’d scribbled remarks like ‘melodic, sentiment – not sentimental, singing moves about the choir interestingly, pretty piano accompaniment’ (and it’s timely to compliment the pianist Gabriel Khor on his lively and supportive playing throughout the concert); and about the second song, Star Sonnet, ‘another slow, inoffensive melody, monotone, basically sentimental  ’.  However, they proved a nice change from the earlier prevalence of over-arranged, Gospel-inspired material.

The rest of the concert included a nice setting of Fats Waller’s Ain’t misbehavin’ and a well-rehearsed if unadventurous account of Gershwin’s I got Rhythm.

There was a rather prolonged series of thanks to sponsors and supporters of the choir before the last two songs; a strange, low-key, hymn-like arrangement of The Star-spangled Banner and a sort of religious flavoured song by Susan LaBarr: Grace before Sleep.

Some reflections
For me, more strongly persuaded of the central importance of Continental Europe in most aspects of broadly western musical culture, the choice of music seemed somehow peripheral. There were virtually no mainstream classical choruses or ensembles or art songs in the programme; the nearest were a few British arrangements of folk songs by important composers. However, the choice of songs within those rather limited genres was eclectic, and the choir’s refinement, control of dynamics, colour, and their flexibility in some off-beat and unorthodox vocal techniques, was often most impressive; and I have to confess that the range of pieces produced an evening of entertaining and well-schooled performances.

I might finally comment on the programme. I see the job of critiquing live music performances as, in part, to create a record of classical music performance in the Greater Wellington region to help future music or other historians to obtain a better picture of activities than is likely to be accessible through the often non-existent archives of a multitude of individual orchestral, choral, chamber music organisations, tertiary institutions and music venues that are of variable accuracy and comprehensiveness.

Basic archival information, time, date and place of the performance(s), was missing. Though it did record the details of all the pieces sung and the names all choir members, musical directors and accompanist.

Choral singing flourishes in Wellington region Big Sing gala concert

New Zealand Choral Federation Secondary Schools’ Choral Festival
Big Sing, second gala concert

Michael Fowler Centre

Thursday, 8 June 2017, 7.00pm

As I said in 2015 (in a review of the Big Sing National Finale concert), it is marvellous to find so many young people taking part in choirs and obviously enjoying it.  Apparently there are more choirs in the 2017 Festival than ever before, and it seems to me that the standard is always rising.  The fact that all the choirs learn all their pieces by heart is staggering to us mere adults who sing in choirs, to whom this is an almost overwhelming difficulty.  An excellent effect of memorisation is that for the most part, words come over clearly – not always the case when singers are constantly glancing down at printed copies.   Every eye here was on the conductors – except for those few choirs who were able to perform without anyone standing in front of them to direct things.

This year, there will be 10 regional finales.  39 choirs participated in the two evening concerts (the other on Wednesday), from 22 schools in this region, plus one from Tauranga.  As always, the excitement in the hall and the large, enthusiastic audience made for a memorable occasion.  Compared with the first of these events I attended some years ago, not only is the number of participants much greater this time (choirs varied from about 20 members, to one of near 200), the audience is much larger.  Each choir sang one item, chosen from the three it had performed in the daytime sessions.

Everything is run with almost military precision by excellent young stage managing staff, plus the very professional but friendly manner of Christine Argyle, the compère.  The judge was well-known local soprano, Pepe Becker, who made helpful remarks at the awards presentation at the end, comparing attitudes required for singing to those for sport.

The performances were being recorded, so that the judges for the national finale later in the year could choose the best choirs from all the regional concerts.

The printed programme could not contain a lot of detail, but it would be an advantage to have the names of choir directors and composers printed in a less skinny, pale type-face, since during items the house lights are lowered completely, and in between items is a short space of time, such is the precision with which choirs move on and off the stage.

The first choir was Dawn Chorus from Tawa College – over 100-strong.  Like a number of the choirs, it has taken part in most, if not all, the regionals since The Big Sing began 29 years ago.  ‘The Seal Lullaby’, a peaceful song by American Eric Whitacre involved singing in both unison and harmony – the former is often harder than the latter.  Sections of ‘oo-oo’ singing were excellently done; the choir’s tone was good.

Tawa’s Early Birds, a small all-girls choir with a student director, came next singing ‘Homeward Bound’ by Marta Keen.  I found this song rather bland, and not the best suited to this group.

Yet a third Tawa College choir, Blue Notes, consisted of about 30 boys and girls.  Their item was by New Zealand composer David Childs: ‘Peace, my heart’.  This quite complex song was given a very restrained rendition.  It was accompanied by solo cellist Benjamin Sneyd-Utting.  It was a musically satisfying performance.

Whitby Samuel Marsden Collegiate’s 30-strong choir Viridi Vocem performed Gershwin’s well-known ‘Fascinating Rhythm’, the mixed choir employing actions to amplify the rhythm.  Words were clear, but the tone left something to be desired, and there was little variety.

Wellington College, and one of the other choirs, employed a professional accompanist.  Their chorale sang ‘Yo le canto’ by David Brunner, a contemporary American songwriter.  The rhythmic clapping enhanced the good sound the 35 boys made.  The harmony was extremely well rendered, and the intonation was spot on.  There was a feeling of unanimity in this spirited performance.

Boys from this school then combined with girls from Wellington Girls’ College to sing a spiritual ‘How can I keep from singing?’.  It was a very competent performance.

From across the city came 35-strong Wellington East Girls’ College Senior Choir.  They performed the ABBA song ‘Super Trouper’ by Barry Anderson and Björn Ulvaeus, with a student director.  I found the tone and dynamics unvarying.  Although words and notes were very clear, it was a dull performance – though the audience was enthusiastic to be hearing something they knew

The same school’s Multi Choir, of about 60 singers, sang ‘Ki Nga Tangata Katoa’, by Lernau Sio, the choir’s student director.  The performance was accompanied by guitar, and there was a student vocal soloist (amplified).  The choir made a robust, authentically Maori sound, and matched their excellent ensemble with appropriate actions.

From the Wairarapa came two schools forming one choir: Viva Camerata, with students from Rathkeale College and St. Matthew’s Collegiate.  They sang a traditional African Xhosa song, ‘Bawo Thixo Somandla’, transcribed by their director, Kiewet van Devente.  The performance incorporated a lot of movement.

The singing was very good, with a strong, forward sound.

Next came the largest choir of the evening, Wellington Girls’ College’s Teal – reflecting the colour of their school uniform.  Despite the choir’s large size, here was clarity plus, in the excellent performance of Gluck’s ‘Torna, O Bella’, the only truly classical piece we heard all night.  It was a delightful performance of this piece from Gluck’s opera Orpheus and Euridice.

The Year 9 Choir from the same school was smaller, but still numbered about 80 members.  They sang David Hamilton’s ‘Ave Maria’.  The sound was a little too restrained, with insufficient variation of dynamics, and the piano sounding a mite too loud.

New Zealand composer David Hamilton appeared again with yet another choir from Wellington Girls’ College – Teal Voices.  They sang his beautiful ‘My Song’.  And it was beautifully sung, with feeling, fabulous clarity and a great dynamic range.

Heretaunga College’s Phoenix Chorale gave us ‘Skyfall’ by Adele Adkins (not Atkins) and Paul Epworth.  The song is based on the theme music from the James Bond film of the same title.  I’m afraid I found it boring.  It began quietly, but later the singers pushed their voices unattractively.  The students’ faces showed no involvement or communication whatever.

Chilton St. James School in Lower Hutt has featured frequently in The Big Sing over the years.  Its first choir to sing was I See Red.  They sang ‘L’Dor Vador’, a Jewish song by Meir Finkelstein.  The approximately 40 singers sang with delightful tone; both notes and words were very clear.

The school’s second choir, Seraphim, performed a Basque song, by Eva Ugalde: ‘Tximeletak’.  Mastering the language must have been quite an assignment!   Though we couldn’t understand the words, they and the music were clear; it was an interesting composition.

Another long-standing regular at The Big Sing, St. Patrick’s College’s Con Anima choir, sang Phil Collins’s ‘Trashin’ the Camp’, a song from the 1999 film Tarzan.  It was accompanied by electric bass guitar and piano, and featured a brief vocal solo.  The 30-strong choir’s rendition involved lots of movement; the piece was very popular with the audience and was sung with style, accuracy and splendid vocal tone.

To end the evening were performances from choirs at Samuel Marsden Collegiate in Karori.  The first, Ad Summa, was directed by the student who composed the piece sung by the second choir.  First up was ‘Te Iwi E’, transcribed by student Gabrielle Palado, who, Google tells me, is a champion golfer.  The singing was accompanied by actions in the best traditions of the action song.  A guitar was used to accompany this 90-strong choir.  It was a fine performance.

The other choir, Altissime, was conducted by teacher (and distinguished soprano) Maaike Christie-Beekman.  She gave a demonstration of active, intelligent, involving directing.  The song ‘I am a sailor’ was by student Neakiry Kivi.  It was an impressive composition for a student to have written.  Its music was in places quite difficult.  The composer herself narrated, using a microphone, through part of the song; the last part was in te reo.  The 30 singers had wonderful tone, control and blend.  The dynamics were superb.  Perhaps this was the best item of the night.  I rather think this is the same song, given now an English title rather than its Maori equivalent, with which Kivi won the Royal New Zealand Navy’s 75th anniversary Secondary Schools’ Creative Competition.

Judging was on the basis of the day’s performances as well as those at the evening concert; the same went for the Wednesday sessions and concert – there were awards at the close of that concert too, though the printed programme did not distinguish as it should have between the awards given each night.

There were many certificates presented, but here I list only the cups.  The Victoria University of Wellington College of Education award  for the best performance of a New Zealand composition was awarded to Rathkeale College and St. Matthew’s Collegiate choir Viva Camerata.  The Shona Murray Cup for classical performance went to Wellington College Chorale; the Dorothy Buchanan Cup for ‘other styles of music’ was won by St. Patrick’s Con Anima choir.  The Festival Cup for ‘overall attitude to The Big Sing’ was awarded to Wellington Girls’ College.  Finally, a new financial award from the Ministry of Youth Development, named ‘Spirit of the Festival’ Youth Ambassadors Award, presented   in the form of a framed certificate, went to Heretaunga College.

Every choir member, director, trainer and accompanist deserves congratulations – not ignoring the fact that a number of the choirs sang unaccompanied, with accuracy and consistency, showing excellent musicianship.  Let’s hope that the students will maintain their singing, through youth and community choirs, when they leave school.