Showing posts with label City Choir Celebrates 150. Show all posts
Showing posts with label City Choir Celebrates 150. Show all posts

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A Sermon for City Choir

Sarah Mitchell [Photo: Ian Thomson]

Sermon for the service held on Sunday 27 October 2013 in Knox Church, celebrating City Choir Dunedin’s 150th anniversary year.

It is a great privilege to be invited to preach here at Knox Church this morning – on this weekend when we celebrate 150 years of music making by the Dunedin Choral Society, in its various incarnations.  (I want to thank you Peter Wishart - and also David Burchell and Karen Knudson - for this invitation and opportunity to share with you all on this celebratory Sunday.)

Knox Church and City Choir are institutions of a similar age – Knox having celebrated its 150th just over three years ago. As I look back over my own life, I realise how many times my involvement with City Choir and Knox Church have paralleled and intermingled with each other.  I remember vividly, as a teenager, encountering my first Messiah concert in the Town Hall, about the same time I first attended Knox Church – both experiences influencing me profoundly.  I became a member of both Knox and Schola Cantorum in the late 1960s and then, so very happily, returned to both institutions during the past decade.  Perhaps even more so than originally, these recent involvements have shaped my life in deeply significant ways.  City Choir and Knox Church have been communities which have provided a framework within which much of my life has been shaped, supported and enhanced.   That framework has been held together through the powerful medium of sublime music – but more than that: by compassionate, caring relationships and through a shared commitment to bring hope and joy to others.

Recently, I watched a wonderful movie entitled Bach: a passionate life and it set me wondering about how passionate our lives are today.  How many of us can say we live fully and passionately?   It is so easy to live a life ironed flat – with the wrinkles of joys and sorrows pressed down firmly beneath steadily increasing layers of unrealistic expectations, despair, apathy and powerlessness.  Fast-forward a movie of your life – of the past decades, years, months and days – would you give it the title a passionate life? Is it enthused with meaningful joy and delight?  Does the life-song you sing mine the deep riches of your woundedness in such a way that others are invited to join you in a hope-filled song?   In the movie I watched, John Eliot Gardner sought to uncover the passionate life of Johann Sebastian Bach – scraping away some layers of familiarity and tradition to expose once more the fervent pulse – the wrinkled spirit – of this incredibly gifted musician.

One of the themes of the movie, (if you’ll excuse the pun) which really sounded a chord with me, was Gardner’s description of the chorales, which feature in Bach’s Oratorios.  The Passions of St John and St. Matthew – and also the Christmas Oratorio (a piece from which tonight’s concert will open) – all tell the familiar Easter or Christmas stories through recitative, aria and chorus.  But in the midst of these, every so often, the choir bursts into a hymn-chorale – with its starkly contrasting harmonic structure and style.  Gardner reminds the viewer that these chorales are the contemporary church response to the ancient story ... that is, Bach has provided a contemporary 18th century church response to the biblical stories.  But, that mingling of ancient and contemporary expression – doesn’t (and mustn’t) end with Bach or any other composer.  As we perform and listen to the music, we will find it becomes richer and more glorious if we allow our present day response to be added as yet another layer of meaning. The passion dwindles – and may even disappear – if, two or three centuries later, we solely rely on the work of others and don’t make our own contribution and response in that ongoing process of creativity.  As Colin Gibson puts it so simply and beautifully in his contemporary hymn He came singing love “for the love to go on we must make it our song.  You and I be the singers.”

This morning’s gospel reading tells of someone seeking a passionate life in his particular time.
I think Nicodemus might have been a little like those described recently by David Burchell as he talked to us about this church service – David acknowledged some of us might be “allergic to church”.  I think there are a lot of us in that capacity!  Often our allergies have been developed as a result of involvement in something that has been anything but life-giving. We are allergic to being told that God is a king sitting on a cloud, a controlling father who tells us what to do – or manipulates our lives as ‘he’ sees fit.  We’re sick of moralistic judgmentalism, hypocritical piety and impossible demands for perfection.  We’re allergic to what should be enabling an existence in which “goodness and mercy are following us all the days of our life”, but what in reality is often destructive and death dealing.

Of course, Nicodemus didn’t belong to a church – but he was a member of the Jewish religious leadership.  I’m not suggesting that Judaism was in any way more deadly than Christianity – at their hearts, both religions are about a life-giving way.  And yet, somehow, Nicodemus’ religious experience was not satisfying enough – for he snuck out, at night, when none of his mates might see him – to seek out this rabbi with his new teaching – this guy Jesus, whom many of us still seek out, in our endeavours to live fully and meaningfully today.

And, in that encounter, what a strange answer Nicodemus got to his questions:  No-one can find a full and meaningful life unless they have a rebirth experience, says Jesus.  And this rebirthing comes if you let Spirit blow through you.  There’s nothing here about having to believe a certain doctrine, nothing about belonging to a certain institution, it’s about being open to the winds of the life-giving Spirit, (that life-giving, love-making, pain-bearing pulse, which some of us might call God) – an impulse, which transforms, and rebirths people into a passionate life.

Writer Jan Phillips suggests that every human being is like a flute – each of us releasing our song, when Spirit passes through the holes carved by our experience.  “No two beings” she writes, “sing the same song, for the holes in each life produce their own unrepeatable melody.”  Often that melody emerges from experiences that are tough, challenging and hurtful – and we always have the choice as to whether we “go around carving holes in others because we have been so painfully carved, or whether we let Spirit play its song through our experience – enabling us to listen to the miraculous music coming through others.”

A friend recently pointed me towards the podcasts from BBC Radio 4 entitled “Soul Music”. Here, each episode focuses on a piece of music and the powerful, emotional stories of people whose lives have been inspired by that music. Many of you would recognise the pieces of music chosen – Fauré’s Requiem, Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius (excerpts of which will feature in tonight’s City Choir Choral Masterpieces concert), Allegri’s Miserere (which Knox Church Choir sings so beautifully most Ash Wednesdays).  I imagine you too will have your own special pieces of music – music that has enabled you to release your own song as Spirit passes through the holes carved by your life experiences.

Let me tell you one of the stories from that BBC series.  It’s the story of South African anti-apartheid campaigner Albie Sachs, who in 1963 was held in solitary confinement near Cape Town.  “I’m desperate”, he recalls, “I’m trying to be brave.  I’m all alone.  I can’t see anyone.  I march up and down in my little cell, singing and whistling.  I’m trying to communicate.  Isn’t there anyone out there?  I’ve been singing ANC songs – no response.  Then I go whistle: [part of theme from Largo of Dvorak’s New World Symphony].   And, from deep within the prison walls, I hear: [more of theme].”    Each evening, the two disembodied whistlers would communicate, through this haunting melody from Dvorak’s New World Symphony – a life-transforming song of goodness and mercy – holding out hope for each other in their bleak, blank and empty spaces.

150 years ... it’s not a long time in the life of a universe – but it’s long enough for many holes to have been carved in the flutes of Knox Church and City Choir.  It’s long enough for goodness and mercy to have been brought to birth over and over again.  We might take this time of celebration as an opportunity to pause, to ask, what song has been sung – and what song will be sung – for the city of Dunedin, within this cosmos, within this (to use the Psalmist’s term) ‘house of the Lord’?
For a passionate life to go on, we must make it our song ... you and I are the singers.

Sarah Mitchell
Knox Church
October 27, 2013

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

150 Years

City Choir: 150 Years in 2013

City Choir Dunedin acknowledge our history and our achievements while promoting Dunedin as a major cultural centre in New Zealand.

City Choir first entertained audiences 150 years ago. The Choir traces its origins back to the Dunedin Philharmonic Society, which gave its first public performance − Handel’s Messiah − on 24 December 1863. The name ‘Dunedin Choral Society’ was adopted in 1871, and is still in use as our title of incorporation. Over the years the Choir has performed under a number of other names and now performs as ‘City Choir Dunedin’. Read more about the Choir's history in this article by music historian Dr Jenny Burchell.

To mark the anniversary, we commissioned a new work from Christopher Marshall; entitled For What Can Be More Beautiful? , this was premièred in March. Partly inspired by the concurrent 150th anniversary of Dunedin Botanic Gardens, it is in two movements, the first a highly expressive setting of part of the Song of Songs, rich in garden imagery; the second a lively syncopated exposition of the merits of fruit trees. The new work presented challenges but brought huge rewards to the performers, and the audience received it with great enthusiasm. The full set of orchestral and choral scores are available for loan.

The Choir was delighted to perform the Verdi Requiem in Dunedin with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra during June 2013, and also toured to join forces with Auckland Choral, Orpheus Choir of Wellington and the Christchurch City Choir for the performances in the major centres. This invitation by the NZSO acknowledged not only the Choir’s 150th anniversary but also our inspirational and dedicated Musical Director, David Burchell.
Choral Masterpieces, conducted by David Burchell.    Photo credit: Pieter du Plessis
Labour Weekend (26 and 27 October) saw City Choir Dunedin in party mood as we commemorated 150 years with a reception, dinner, church service and the highlight, a gala evening of Choral Masterpieces, sung by an augmented Choir and accompanied by the Southern Sinfonia. We were delighted to welcome around 30 singers from all corners of New Zealand who joined the City Choir singers in this performance.


"Since the days of the Gold Rush, City Choir Dunedin has made an exceptional contribution to the musical life of the Otago region. From the Proms to Messiah, the Choir presents a rich and varied programme of choral music, beautifully performed. The Verdi Requiem with the NZSO earlier this year was a highlight for audiences nationwide and testament to the quality of the Choir. I congratulate everyone associated with City Choir Dunedin on reaching this very significant milestone."
 - Hon Christopher Finlayson, Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage

The City of Dunedin is incredibly proud of our City Choir. For 150 years, City Choir Dunedin has, in one or another incarnation, delighted audiences with its sublime musical offerings of master works from the choral repertoire. Not only does the Choir make a vast contribution to the rich cultural life of Dunedin, but it also provides opportunities for younger soloists to gain valuable performance experience as they embark upon their careers. Not many people know this, but City Choir Dunedin is the second-oldest choir in New Zealand, with the Auckland Choral Society being a little older. I congratulate City Choir Dunedin on its achievements over the past 150 years and wish it all the best for a bright future. If the accolades after the Choir’s recent tour with the NZSO are anything to go by, we can look forward to enjoying many more worldclass performances from City Choir Dunedin.
 - Dave Cull, Mayor of Dunedin

"As Vice-Chancellor of the University of Otago, I am delighted to have the role as Patron of City Choir Dunedin. The Choir has made a significant contribution to the musical heritage and rich cultural life of our community, and it continues to provide a platform for younger soloists to develop and excel. Over the years, many University staff have forged strong links with the Choir, and we look forward to the ongoing success of this wonderful organisation. I would like to congratulate the Choir on reaching this very significant milestone, and wish them all the best for the future."
 - Professor Harlene Hayne, ONZM, PhD, HonDSc, FRSNZ
Vice-Chancellor of the University of Otago

"Ngā mihi nui kia koutou katoa
Congratulations City Choir Dunedin on your 150th anniversary. You are one of New Zealand’s most illustrious performing arts organisations with a distinguished pedigree tracing back to the pioneering Dunedin Philharmonic Society and its first public performance, Handel’s Messiah, on Christmas Eve 1863. Yours is an extraordinary artistic journey in our young country. You have established a proud history of choral excellence in New Zealand which continues to develop and build from generation to generation. Long may it continue!
Best wishes from all at the NZSO."
- Christopher Blake, QSO, Chief Executive, New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

"The Southern Sinfonia congratulates City Choir Dunedin on reaching its 150th year. Countless thousands of people have been enriched over that time by singing in or listening to the Choir. While orchestras make a wonderful sound, few would argue that the most exquisite of all instruments in the human voice. The Choir provides such a tremendous opportunity to experience the excitement, emotion, drama, and sense of fulfillment that comes from being part of a large and creative group of people. For the Southern Sinfonia, the chance to work alongside the Choir means that we can be part of a creative collaboration which makes Dunedin such a special place to make music. All the best for the next 150 years of great choral music-making."
- Stephen Christensen, President of the Southern Sinfonia

"On behalf of the New Zealand Choral Federation, please accept my warmest congratulations on the choir’s 150th anniversary. City Choir Dunedin has been at the heart of musical life in the city since the early days of settlement and is a significant part of our country's cultural heritage. The Governance Board of NZCF was very pleased to hear of your highly successful celebratory concert last weekend and wishes you all the best for the remainder of this anniversary year."
- Christine Argyle, Chair, New Zealand Choral Federation

Handel's Messiah

Our special year ended appropriately with a performance of Handel’s Messiah on December 10, and we welcomed back four soloists who have a special relationship with the Choir – Lois Johnston, Amanda Cole, David Hamilton and Jonathan Lemalu.

Dr Jenny Burchell researched and wrote this interesting article about the performances of Messiah during the Choir's 150-year existence: Handel's Messiah and the Dunedin Choral Society 1863 - 2013.