City Choir Dunedin’s latest concert, “Applaud! Women in Music” was an interesting and well- designed affair. The considerable use of soloists Olivia Pike (soprano), Tessa Romano (mezzo- soprano), and Benjamin Madden (tenor) was a smart choice and allowed the choir to focus on refining a smaller percentage of the overall programme.
Martines’ Laudate Pueri Dominum, conducted by Mark Anderson, featured all three soloists and after a rousing intro from David Burchell (organ), the choir we’re away and swiftly followed by Pike and Romano’s first accomplished flourishes of the evening. The trio sang well as an ensemble during ‘Nell’ odo rifero chiaro oriente’ and their physical and harmonic interactions seemed a natural extension of the text. This continued into Pike and Romano’s ‘Certe alme misere’ and was my highlight of the work, with other special mentions to Madden’s vocal acrobatics in ‘Qual alto principe’ and the choir’s negotiation of the tricky fugue, ‘Di tutti popoli’.
The duo of Pike and Romano impressed again with Strozzi’s ‘Mi ferte, oh Begli occhi’, also accompanied by Burchell on organ. I have a soft spot for Strozzi and found this rendition to be suitably vocally and physically dramatic as to reflect the typically over-the-top, “I’ll die if you don’t love me” prose of the era. And then we reached the Britten. Notwithstanding Burchell’s justification, I am still not completely convinced of the inclusion of his Hymn to St. Cecilia in a programme so focussed on female composition. However, I understand the underpinning theme of Cecilia being the patron saint of music. I was pleasantly surprised by how successfully the choir negotiated Britten’s harmonic writing – theoretically, it should have been more difficult but they were much more settled than in the Martines. Unfortunately, much of the English text was lost, with perhaps this setting being more suitable for a smaller ensemble. Solos from within the choir were delivered with confidence, notably from Sophie Gangl. Madden again stepped up to the plate and was appropriately fanfare-like, providing the classic tenor/trumpet comparison in the best possible way.
This was followed by a bracket of African-American composers Florence Price and Betty Jackson King – Romano’s time to shine and shine she did. I particularly enjoyed Price’s ‘An April Day’ but all three songs were delivered with charisma. Word-painting is a talent and one which Romano possesses in abundance. To close the first half, Pike was welcomed back to join the sopranos and altos of the choir for Chaminade’s Ronde du Crépuscule, with Sandra Crawshaw accompanying. Pike soared above the chorus as they spun tales of enchanted fairy worlds in murmuring utterances.
After a brief interval, the choir returned with Tamsin Jones’ ‘Von Herzen’, a setting of the preface Beethoven used for his Missa Solemnis. Antiphonal phrasing allowed the choir to enjoy the interplay between voice parts. Continuing the Germanic theme, Pike’s bracket consisted of a Lang lied, ‘Den Abschied schnell genommen’, which had excellent diction and energy, and Beach’s ‘I send my heart up to thee’. This allowed a showcase of legato and phrasing, with lovely bloom into the upper register from Pike.
A selection of seven of fourteen poems from Felicia Edgecombe’s Shaky Places showed a variety of genres for the choir and also provided them with a chance to explore New Zealand experiences in musical settings. The most successful movements were ‘Once in a while’, where the choir demonstrated a more delicate touch; ‘Twelve moon lines’, which Romano led through strong blues inspiration, allowing the choir to begin to leave their classical comfort zone; and ‘Erebus’, a beautiful portrayal of what is obviously highly sensitive subject matter and quite potentially the most moving piece of the evening. Febriani Idrus (flute) and Sophie Hamer (cello) excelled in ‘Erebus’ and their addition was transformative. To close, a strong performance of Rosephanye Powell’s ‘The Word was God’ and did perhaps they save their best-executed piece for last?
It is not every day that one gets to attend an almost entirely female-composed programme – and this was a welcomed change. In some of my previous remarks, I have specifically mentioned diversity in programming and how this needs to be stretched further. If this concert is the result, then I will continue to make noise because this is a very good start. City Choir Dunedin also proved themselves perfectly capable of handling and delivering contemporary and twentieth-century works that, in the past, may have been put in the “not our cup of tea” basket. Overall, a very pleasing concert and I look forward to seeing what boundaries are pushed next!
Review by Courtney Hickmott