Napier Civic Choir

26 October, Waiapu Cathedral
By Anna Soutar

My word, the conductor has a lot to control in this performance. There are more than eighty singers and thirty or more orchestra members, with their various instruments; in the Haydn piece this is further added to with several kettle drums. It’s an unwieldy crowd. The most interesting of all are the four soloists: soprano, contralto, tenor and baritone.

Unwieldy yes, but once José Aparicio lifts his baton it all blends into a single voice with every individual confidently taking its place.

This performance highlights a mass, the Paukenmesse, or Mass in Time of War, composed by Joseph Haydn in 1796 for the Esterhazy family and considered one of his most successful. It was selected by the Napier Civic Choir this year to mark one hundred years since the end of the Great War. The actual date of the Armistice is November 11, so at this time a century ago, it was not yet time for the noisy jubilation that crashed across the world when the War ended. Rather it was a matter of suspense, of anxiety, of dread even, as if the world was holding its breath just before the end. And so the music carries this feeling. There are trumpets and quiet salutation, but no triumphant celebration. There are the kettle drums but they evoke the disciplined trotting of war horses rather than rowdy galloping. “Keep control,” the music seems to say, “We are not quite there yet but victory will be ours if we persist.”

The soloists are a delight. All young students of voice, with various links to music in Hawke’s Bay, Soprano Katherine Winitana, Mezzo Soprano Sally Haywood, Tenor L J Crichton and Baritone Samuel McKeever show maturity that belies their youth and sing this difficult music with pride and musical skill.

Supporting the Haydn Mass, the Choir has chosen two 20th century works that complement each other and the theme of the occasion, Armistice Day. The first is an atonal setting of the Beatitudes by Arvo Pärt. The choir starts alone showing how powerful a whisper can be. Under their voices is a drone brought in by the organ, until organ and voice chant together, the full sound reminiscent of the plainsong of monks. The voices fade to a whisper, disappear, until the sound of the organ is all that remains.

My mother was an English child in World War 1 and I remember her stopping what she was doing in those November mornings, in shop, street, school or home for two minutes at 11 o’clock on the 11th, holding my hand and hushing me, looking away into the distance. Now I know what she was doing. It was a kind of mediation on the meaning – if there is one – of War.  The third work from the Civic Choir this evening is by contemporary American composer Morten Lauridsen, modelled on the requiem mass, and prompted by the death of his mother. It is a quiet meditative piece and interconnects themes from sacred music and ancient chant-like harmonies. It may prepare the audience for November this year with valuable meditations on the nature of Death and War.


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