Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Anthony Ritchie reviews Nature's Bounty

Review of City Choir Dunedin’s concert ‘Nature’s Bounty’, Sunday March 23, 2013.

‘Nature’s Bounty’ was an excellent way to open celebrations for the City Choir Dunedin’s 150th anniversary, this year. It successfully presented a mixture of the contemporary with the Victorian: a new work by New Zealand composer Christopher Marshall, a recent work by renowned Dunedin composer Jack Speirs, and a late 19th century work by Coleridge-Taylor. It was an ambitious programme, with plenty of taxing music for the choir, which they tackled very well.

The choir has good numbers at present, but suffer from a lack of tenors, a perennial problem for choirs. Their sound projected well in Knox Church, against lively orchestral accompaniments in the Marshall and Coleridge-Taylor works, and diction was generally strong.

The focal point of the evening was the specially commissioned work ‘For What Can Be More Beautiful?’ by Christopher Marshall, funded by Creative NZ. Marshall’s work is unashameably polystylistic, shifting from romantic sounds at the start to more exotic, almost Latin sounds in the second movement, with harmonic twists that belong to a more contemporary style. In this respect he is unusual in the NZ compositional scene. As he himself said, the music borders on cliché on occasions but has a fresh ‘take’ on ideas from the past. The romantic style of the opening seemed a suitable way to celebrate a choir who originated in the 19th century. The choir relished these early passages, with full lyrical tone that floated above the lush orchestration. Contrapuntal passages were simply scored and effective, and there was some nice word painting. The climax of this long first movement was striking, and strongly executed by the choir.

I personally found some of the scoring too busy for my liking, as it infringed on the choral sound rather than enhancing it. This was especially so in the second movement where the tricky rhythms undermined the choral tone – the members were concentrating so hard on staying in the right place that the sound weakened a little.  Despite this, the general mood and pace of this movement was upbeat and lively, thanks in no small part to the conductor David Burchell, who kept the forces together very well.

The new work was well received by the audience, and those I talked to were enthusiastic about it. It presented challenges but the hard work put in seemed to bring rewards to both performers and audience.

The new work sparkled with many orchestral colours and lush choral scoring; by contrast, Jack Speirs ‘Cantico del Sole’ seems austere and economical. For me this was the highlight of the evening, in that the work is perfectly scored for choir and has some lovely orchestration, coupled with a stunning soprano line, sung beautifully by rising star, Grace Park. The men in the choir were secure on their chant-like lines, and modal passages were very nicely in tune. On the whole, the choir’s intonation was excellent in this concert. ‘Cantico del Sole’ shows the influence of Arvo Pärt, is strong in character, and is arresting for the audience. It is a work that deserves more performances.

Rounding the evening was Coleridge-Taylor’s ‘Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast’, a piece of entertaining and exotic Victoriana. The challenge of this work is the text: the huge number of words meant that diction is crucial, and by and large the choir managed well. In some places the orchestra were rather too exuberant for both choir and soloist, Matthew Wilson, and they were rather drowned out. Otherwise, this was a solid performance, and a pleasant way to conclude the concert.

In conclusion, I would say the risk of putting on this programme of new and old worked well, and the audience went away satisfied. The choir has started its anniversary year in good form, having been expertly directed by David Burchell.

By Anthony Ritchie

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