Monday, June 25, 2012

Southern Concert of Voices concert

Yesterday my wife and I went to the Southern Consort of Voices' Concert in the former Dominican Nuns' chapel behind St Joseph's Cathedral.  This is a lovely venue, and one that's unfamiliar to most people in Dunedin, I suspect.  Certainly I've never been there before, though admittedly when I was younger the building would have been off-limits to most people, particularly males.  It was part of the large Dominican convent complex, and the only other time I remember being in the complex was when we performed a play in the Hall. How that came about I can't remember, but I think it was quite a daunting place for the audience to find!  (The play was An Inspector Calls, the first play produced by the Marlowe Players, a group long since disbanded.)

The Dominicans have long since moved on from this complex, and it's now cared for by the Diocese as a whole, I assume.  I imagine the building gets a certain amount of use by the local parish these days.

The choir was somewhat bigger than the last time I saw them, at least as far as the women were concerned, and was in very good voice.  Their programme was focused around Otago composers (with a couple of ring-ins who only just made it because of some connection with the area) and was an interesting mix.  Four of the eight composers were in the audience: Corwin Newall, Alan Edwards, Alex Campbell-Hunt and Anthony Ritchie.  Newall is a current music student at Otago, and Campbell-Hunt has just completed a Mus B there.)

Newall's piece was a setting of the Ave Maria and was quite an ambitious piece for the choir to open with, but they did it well and it communicated itself to the audience.  This was followed by two pieces  composed by Richard Madden, both of them familiar: Bullulalow and I Sing of a Maiden.  Madden has a lovely expressive gift and the second of these two pieces has one of the sweetest tunes around.

Leanne Veitch's Sing Christmas is a boisterous piece that leaves the choir gasping for breath at the end - effective, but not something you'd want to sing twice in a row.  Alan Edwards' I will sing to the Lord was short and didn't make a particular impact on me on first hearing.  I suspect it's a piece you need to become familiar with to enjoy thoroughly.

The final piece in the first half (all the pieces here had some religious link) was The Lord Bless You and Keep You.  It was composed by Michael Winikoff in memory of his father - Winikoff is a regular member of the choir but was overseas yesterday.  The words of the blessing are ones that Winikoff's father would use to his family and they are sung in both English and Hebrew during the course of the piece.  There's also a violin obbligato.   The piece has a lovely, slightly unusual setting of the English words, and then gradually introduces the Hebrew.  Finally the two are sung together forming a rich and evocative sound.   This piece went down well with the audience. 

In the second half we had three settings of poems by Emily Dickinson, composed by Christopher Marshall.  To Hear the Oriole Sing was lovely, I'm Nobody a delight and the piece that the audience responded most quickly to; Hope is the Thing with Feathers was less engaging on first hearing.  One difficulty with choral works is that the words can easily be lost in the mix of harmonies and counterpoints.  A couple of pieces suffered a little from this, particularly the third of the Marshall songs.  Without the words, the music can lose its point to a degree.  As a listener you resign yourself to not being able to tell what's being sung, but this isn't ideal.  Naturally it requires a great deal of effort on the choir's part to communicate the words distinctly, and often with the complexity of the music taking up much of their attention, this gets put in second place.  Anthony Ritchie's piece, Piano Practice, which came later in the concert, began with clear words.  These became more obscured, however, as time went on, and the point of the poem got lost - for me. 

Alex Campbell-Hunt's piece, Late Wisdom, is another that probably requires two or three hearings to get the feel at home with.  Not that it was particularly complex; it just didn't pick up the ears quite so readily on first hearing. 

Anthony Ritchie's three pieces were last on the programme.  In the Summer Fields has a Hungarian 
flavour to it, and came across well.  As I said Piano Practice missed out in terms of words, but is a lovely piece otherwise.   Song of Hope was another of those pieces that require some familiarity.   There's nothing that can be done about this in the process of a single concert!  

This was a pretty ambitious concert overall, with the singers being required to sing complex parts and pitch some difficult leaps - some also had to whistle, play bells and a bodhrán.   There were many beautiful moments when chords hung wonderfully in the air and on the ear, and when harmonies shifted magically.  

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