The Orpheus Choir of Wellington Show Their Worth

New ZealandNew Zealand Haydn, Orff: Emma Fraser (soprano), Henry Choo (tenor), James Clayton (baritone), Orpheus Choir of Wellington, Wellington Young Voices Choir, Orchestra Wellington, Marc Taddei (conductor), Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, 15.11.2014 (PM)

Haydn – Symphony No 87 in A major
Orff – Carmina Burana

Handel,  Messiah-Madeleine Pierard (soprano), Jacqueline Dark (mezzo-soprano), Paul McMahon (tenor), James Clayton (baritone), Orpheus Choir of Wellington, New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Stephen Mould (conductor), Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, 13.12.2014 (PM)

Within the space of a month, Wellington’s Orpheus Choir undertook to present here in the capital two of the best-loved choral works of their kind, and to everybody’s delight brought off both performances with assurance and élan – a tribute to the training given by both the choir’s Musical Director for the past couple of years, Mark Dorrell, and to the Interim Director Brent Stewart, who prepared the group for these performances. Each was with a different orchestra and conductor, and, apart from one singer common to both, with a different complement of soloists.

If in terms of sheer visceral impact Messiah made the greater choral impression, it was probably because of the appropriately spectacular, attention-grabbing playing of Orchestra Wellington in Carmina Burana, under conductor Marc Taddei. Had Messiah been delivered in gloriously anachronistic Beechamesque style, with brasses blazing and percussion of all kinds jangling, the voices would have garnered far less of the limelight. But, as is the usual case today, Messiah was presented with a small-ish New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, playing in “period style” as if to the manner born – sparing use of vibrato, and clean, lithe bowing, making for lines and figurations of extraordinary focus and transparency. The choir wasn’t a small one, but the sound was never bloated or over-wrought, but properly strong and focused, with weight of tone or transparency as the moment required.

In Carmina Burana the Orpheus was joined by the Wellington Young Voices’ Choir, whose director, Christine Argyle, had obviously done a marvellous job in rehearsal of bringing out all the requisite sweetness and innocence of the youngsters’ vocal utterances in the work’s latter stages. Their combinations with the main choir, and the characterizations of the different parts readily conveyed the panoply of responses of the texts to the ebb and flow of fortune in human affairs, underlining the age-old predicament of the temporal human condition.

Though the centerpiece of the earlier concert was undoubtedly Orff’s famous work, conductor Marc Taddei and his Orchestra Wellington players had earlier in the evening given us a spirited and revelatory reading of the last of Haydn’s “Paris” symphonies. Conductor and players have been working their way this set of six symphonies during the course of the concert year. So here in Wellington we’ve been regularly acquainted throughout 2014 with aspects of the flowering of Haydn’s genius as a symphonist, a process that’s been a revelation to many people accustomed to thinking of him as some kind of “less-inspired Mozart”.

Marc Taddei has been the driving force behind this local symphonic renaissance of the work of a composer who, after all, has long been regarded (perhaps more in word than by action) as “the father of the symphony”. Here was tangible proof of that dictum, fostered by a conductor whose unflagging energy and enthusiasm on the podium has galvanized his Orchestra Wellington into giving consistently vital, characterful and brilliantly-detailed performances over the last few concert seasons. We revelled in those same performance standards Taddei and his players had brought to the rest of the “Paris” series – sprightly tempi in all of the movements, ear-catching dynamics that underlined the composer’s penchant for surprise and droll humour, clear, focused attack on leading notes, nicely-sprung rhythms giving plenty of trajectory to the lines and figurations, and a real sense of looking for the “character” of each movement, so that there was never a suggestion of mere note-spinning.

This concert also featured a display by the Wellington branch of the renowned Venezuelan-initiated movement “El Sistema” – thus it was that next onto the concert platform came children of all sizes and ages, carrying their instruments and ready to play arrangements of music ranging from single-line renditions of nursery tunes to an arrangement of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’s first movement – enchanting! The group has forged a partnership with Orchestra Wellington, with the formation of a group called the Arohanui Strings, and is organized by OW violinist Alison Eldregde – so here were the children, performing at a concert given by their “parent” orchestra (in fact the orchestra’s assistant conductor, VInce Hardaker, conducted the children’s extremely creditable efforts).

After the interval, Carmina Burana burst upon our sensibilities like a firecracker with the work’s opening ‘O fortuna’. Conductor Marc Taddei brought out all the music’s brilliance and energy throughout, and his singers and instrumentalists never flagged in their efforts. My only reservation concerned the opening chorus, during which, to my ears, the singing and playing didn’t pay heed to the music’s darkness via a sense of the words’ despair and bitterness, through sounding too unrelievedly extrovert. The performance didn’t connect me with sentiments like “….hateful life first oppresses and then soothes as fancy takes it” and “Fate – monstrous and empty, you whirling wheel, you are malevolent!”. Along with the incredible energy, I wanted some of that despair and malevolence to come across, firstly hushed, and then angrily bursting out, each gesture heightening the other’s impact.

But this was only the first few minutes of the work – and fortunately the other somewhat “nihilistic” moments of the score were characterized superbly, particularly by the soloists. From the ‘In the tavern’ sections of the score came the song of the swan being roasted on the spit, a near-macabre sequence sung with the most incredible intensity and anguish by Australian tenor Henry Choo – one of the finest performances I’ve ever heard of the episode. Choo’s fellow-countryman, baritone James Clayton relished so very deliciously his ‘I am the Abbot of Cockaigne’ declamation, as did the chorus in its account of drunken dissipations ‘When we are in the Tavern…’. Clayton had already given us a rollicking ‘Estuans interius’ (Burning with rage) with only the cruel octave leap at the very end causing his voice any discomfort.

Completing the triumvirate of stellar solo-voice performances was that of Christchurch-born soprano Emma Fraser – her first notes at ‘Siqua sine socio’ (The girl without a lover) were arresting in their fullness and beauty, as were those of ‘Stetit puella’ (A girl stood). But what transfixed all of us was her delivery of the ecstatic outburst following ‘Tempus set iocundum’ (This is the joyful time) – with the word ‘Dulcissime’ her voice took wing, climbing even higher at the top of the succeeding phrase and leaving us open-mouthed at the expansive freedom of it all – in my entire experience of hearing this phrase sung, both live and on recordings, only the great Lucia Popp has for me managed to surpass Fraser’s vocal purity and ecstatic feeling.

All of this suggests something of an exceptional occasion – but within the month the same Orpheus Choir, with a new array of musical partners, save for baritone James Clayton, tackled the very different demands of Handel’s Messiah. Comments were made in some quarters regarding a preponderance of “across-the-Tasman” input on this occasion – not only were three out of the four soloists from Australia but also the conductor; these comments are not xenophobic but merely refelct a concern that home-grown (and exceptionally talented) singers aren’t sometimes being given the opportunities that they deserve in New Zealand.

So it was left to soprano Madeleine Pierard to fly the flag for the New Zealand-made brand of vocalism. That she did so with one of the most astonishing and heart-warming singing performances I’ve ever witnessed is now a matter for history. She commanded the platform throughout her solos in a way that only James Clayton was able to match – in fact, in other contexts one might have adjudged the quartet of soloists to be an ill-balanced one, as neither Jacqueline Dark nor Paul McMahon had anything like their colleagues’ strength and command of utterance.

What each of the last-named did have was the kind of elegant focus that enabled them to project the sense of their words with a sincere and mostly unswerving line. Thus tenor Paul McMahon’s ‘Comfort ye’ at the beginning was no clarion call of awakening, but a nicely-modulated and earnestly-expressed message of hope, a philosopher’s rather than a soldier’s tidings. And though Jacqueline Dark’s ‘He shall feed his flock’ paled next to Madeleine Pierard’s radiant adjoining ‘Come unto Him’, the former made ‘He was despised’ a touching, sensitively-etched depiction of great suffering, the quietly-focused sadness of it all somehow as powerful in its effect here as many a more trenchant performance.

James Clayton’s singing was of a different order, vivid, powerful and theatrical – I thought the tempo for the opening to ‘For Behold, Darkness shall Cover the Earth’ was just right, allowing a great sense of stillness out of which grew the light which accompanied the Lord’s glory, and for the singer to delineate this transformation most vividly. As well, Clayton certainly had the power and energy to respond to the music’s drive and urgency in ‘Why do the Nations’, which was most thrillingly put across; and though I was disappointed that he didn’t avail himself of the central section of ‘The Trumpet shall Sound’, practically nobody does, anyway (I don’t think I’ve ever heard it in concert). In any case, the singer’s magnificent declamations and the peerless trumpet-playing of NZSO principal Michael Kirgan couldn’t have been bettered – a magnificent realization.

I’ve already waxed lyrical about Madeleine Pierard’s singing in general terms – suffice to say that I have never been more convinced of the efficacy of belief in salvation than when listening to her ineffably moving ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’. Without cheapening the effect of the music in any way she choreographed her words and associated feelings by the use of her whole body, turning this way and that so as to include almost everybody present within the sweep of her gaze, but doing so in a way that seemed to grow entirely from the music and the belief that it was expressing. Elsewhere, her coloratura singing galvanized our responses to the music in a different, more spectacularly brilliant way, but always placed entirely at the composer’s service – ‘Rejoice greatly’ swept us along amidst an irresistible tide of joyous expectation, with virtuosity of an astonishing order. One can easily imagine people saying, in years to come, “Ah, but you should have been there when Madeleine Pierard……”

The soloists’ efforts were but one aspect of the splendour of the whole – I’ve already mentioned the stellar playing of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, responding at every turn to Stephen Mould’s interesting amalgam of period practice and romanticism. The lines and textures of the music remained clean and sparkling throughout the most frenetic episodes, and the tone-colours evoked by the playing readily matched the work’s different episodes, enriching the sense of story and atmosphere. Mould’s was an expressive, deeply-felt view of the music, favouring speeds that tended towards the sprightly, but which mostly energized rather than blurred the lines. This affected parts of the chorus more than others – while the soprano lines readily gleamed and glistened, the middle voices, especially the tenors, sometimes encountered places where the tempi was too hectic for ideal contrapuntal clarity to be achieved.

However, the magnificent Orpheus Choir made these moments the exception rather than the rule, giving us in many places some of the liveliest, crispest and brightest singing I’ve heard at any Messiah I’ve attended. Right from ‘And the glory of the Lord’ with its muscular stride, beautifully dovetailed detail and episodes of fervent declamation, the choir served notice that this was to be a Messiah to be reckoned with and remembered. My favourite chorus, ‘And He shall purify’ was exhilaratingly done, the sopranos excitingly pinging their stratospheric lines as if “switching on” rows of stars strung across the sky; while at the other end of the choral spectrum the massive weight of the ‘Halleluiah’ Chorus resplendently combined with brass and timpani to overwhelming effect – well worth jumping to one’s feet for (which we all did!).

All in all, the two concerts reaffirmed the status and reputation of the city’s premier choral group – with its new director Brett Stewart taking charge, further great things are promised in times to come, when voices shall again be lifted up with strength!

Peter Mechen

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