Local Sound: Whanganui’s Schola Sacra Choir with the Renaissance Singers

Schola SacraSome of you may remember that back before Christmas I was blown away by a live performance of Handel’s Messiah featuring local choir Schola Sacra. This month they were back, performing with the Palmerston North-based Renaissance Singers. Although both groups were formed in the 1970s this was the first time they had performed together, and I went along to check it out.

As their name would suggest, Schola Sacra place a particular emphasis on the performance of sacred music, with a repertoire that stretches back to medieval plainsong, although they also perform a considerable number of secular works. The Renaissance singers meanwhile place particular emphasis on the music, both sacred and secular, of the 16th to 18th centuries, although again they are by no means limited only to this music.

The result was a concert which might best be described as delightfully eclectic. During the first half of the programme the two choirs performed separately, with Schola Sacra bringing the audience, among other things, Handel’s lively ‘To Song and Dance’ from Samson, Sicut Cervus by Palestrina, and the Beatles’ classic ‘When I’m 64.’ There was also one of the first performances of ‘Where Go The Mists of Morning’, by Renaissance Singers patron and honorary member Graham Parsons, a moving tribute to the 29 miners who were killed in an explosion at Pike River Mine in the South Island on the 19th of November 2010.

Then it was the turn of the Renaissance Singers, who focussed primarily on a musical tribute to William Shakespeare (this year marking, of course, the 400th anniversary of his death). Shakespeare’s plays contain a number of songs, and while the original musical settings, if there were any, have been lost, subsequent composers have long endeavoured to rectify the lack. Thomas Arne (1710-1778) was one such, and three of his songs were features along with another excellent contribution from Graham Parsons (‘Sea Shanty’ – Stephano’s song from The Tempest) and a contrasting pair by David Hamilton: Desdemona’s melancholy ‘Willow Song’ from Othello (a plaintive “why doesn’t he love me anymore?” sung shortly before her husband murders her for her imagined infidelities), followed by the playful ‘When Daisies Pied’ from Love’s Labour’s Lost, which playfully references the cuckoo, symbol of the cuckholded husband.

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Schola Sacra choir (ladies in black) and The Renaissance Singers (ladies in blue) performing in Whanganui’s Christ Church, Sunday 8th May 2016.

After the interval the two choirs came together for Haydn’s Little Organ Mass (Missa Brevis No. 7 in B flat). This was my first time hearing a classical sung mass, and I have to admit I was a little apprehensive: I don’t speak Latin. What if I didn’t understand? What if I was bored? Of course, I should know better by now than to worry about things like that. Of course it was in Latin, but between the programme notes and my own familiarity with Christian worship I was hardly ill-equipped to cope. And as for boring, well, for a start ‘bored’ is a state of mind, and then again this was a lovely (and not too long) piece, featuring a soprano solo by Jennifer Little, who went to school with my sister and is now a successful New Zealand soloist.

In other words, I had a fantastic time and heard a fantastic range of music, and will happily do it again sometime (Schola Sacra’s next concert is in August…)

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