City Choir Dunedin: Songs for Humanity

After the past few months of little to no live performance, it was cheering to see City Choir Dunedin performing to a completely packed Knox Church. With barely any spare seats upstairs or down, I was fortunate to snaffle one of the last few besides the organ console and while at times this wasn’t ideal for balance, it did provide a greater sense of intimacy which worked well with this programme. And what a perfectly timed programme it was! Dedicating this performance of Fauré’s Requiem to “those who have died [of Covid] and those who yet will”, conductor David Burchell remarked how fitting the selections made pre world crisis have turned out to be. And each item of Songs for Humanity was just that – a song in remembrance or celebration of humanity in these trying times.

 

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With a first half comprising of three contemporary pieces, the choir had the added challenge of using only partial forces for the first two. Beginning the concert with the sopranos and altos, the choir maintained a good sense of stillness to the opening of Ola Gjeilo’s Song of the Universal. Due to a combination of the usual concerns of Knox’s acoustic and the composer’s use of melismatic, interweaving phrases, much of the text was lost but the overall atmosphere was maintained. The choir navigated the tricky a cappella section well before welcoming back the, as always, skilful support of the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra strings.

And then the tenors and basses got their turn! Presenting Christopher Marshall’s Pastorale involved many staging and leadership changes, with David Burchell ceding the podium to Mark Anderson for the organ instead. Originally for wind ensemble and choir, Marshall’s piece is texturally much thicker than the Gjeilo, with this rearrangement calling for strings, vibraphone, marimba and organ. At times it seemed as though the choir was overshadowed by the complexity of the accompaniment, although I’m sure my seat didn’t help matters. Soaring phrases from Caroline Burchell (soprano) and the choir’s strong, contrastive outbursts elevated the piece.

Finally reunited as a whole, the choir looked and sounded at their most comfortable in the first half in Pēteris Vasks’ Dona nobis pacem. They fixed the majority of any pesky, earlier intonation issues and established a greater emotional connection through the changing harmonies. Which is definitely required when the text only has three words! Coupled with further sensitive accompaniment from strings and organ (this time provided by Johnny Mottershead), Vasks’ setting was delivered excellently. On a side note, while it is fantastic to see contemporary works being programmed, more diversity other than white, male composers is still required.

Following a short interval and the ensuing instrumental changes, it was time for the main work of the evening, Fauré’s Messe de Requiem. Composed to be sung throughout a mass service, this is now commonly performed in concert format. If the choir had improved in the Vasks’, they came into their own for the Fauré, providing a rich, full, nicely balanced soundworld. Personally, I think the choir achieved some of the best singing I have heard from them in the final two movements, Libera me and In Paradisum.

Both soloists suit the repertoire; Caroline Burchell with tonal brilliance in a moving rendition of Pie Jesu and Scott Bezett (baritone) through the necessary gravitas required for both the Offertorium and Libera me. The smaller orchestral forces allowed for individual players to shine, particularly lone violinist, Tessa Petersen (concertmaster) in the Sanctus. Excluding the little (stuck pedal) organ mishap midway through (handled very smoothly by Mottershead), overall the Requiem was a resounding success. And as such, was a fitting and poignant way to provide a reprieve from the harsh realities of its dedication.