CD Reviews

People of the Light

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The following review by Jill Meredith appeared in Touchstone May 2016

“Since its inception in 1976 with Guy Jansen as Musical Director, the Festival Singers of Wellington has encouraged young performers and introduced new music to swell the great sea of faith. People of the Light continues this tradition under the direction of composer Jonathan Berkahn who has been a choir member since 1990, accompanist (1999-2013) and is currently Musical Director. Jonathan is also director of music at an Anglican parish in Khandallah, Wellington.

The music follows the Church year, beginning with songs for Advent and Christmas. These first four songs are filled with Advent expectation and the certainty that God’s care is ever-present. Go to dark Gethsemane prepares us for the twelve pieces of an Easter cantata, The Third Day, in which the musical settings and words heighten the pain and poignancy of the familiar sequence of events.

In The Third Day we hear many voices anew: Judas in torment, mother Mary tending the body of her son, sorrowing women early in the morning, the angel who speaks to these women, the friends, confused and fearful, in the locked upper room, the travellers on the road to Emmaus and doubting Thomas.

The cantata concludes with the Great Commission and a triumphant Finale dances along supported by a blend of instrumental sections and full choir. The cantata is followed by Such love, a beautiful setting of 1 John 3:1-2, 16-18, and choral settings for the traditional words of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis. People of the Light concludes with a Blessing based on Psalm 27.

An unexpected and delightful instrumental inclusion are pieces of Celtic music. The cantata opens with Easter Snow and at the end  FInale slides into The Early Morning Set, with lively melodies to complement the fervour of the preceding piece.

Look, therefore, for variety in this CD and you will find it. Fourteen instrumentalists are named in the list of performers, three of whom play more than one instrument. Soloists, ably supported by women’s and men’s voices and full choir, enrich choral textures.

Expect variety in mood. Some songs resonate with gentle tenderness, such as Pietà. With its lilting cadences, Pietà is part of a long tradition in religious art depicting Mary cradling her crucified son. Gently,  gently, lift him may well move you to tears. In contrast, Do you remember? presents the events of Good Friday with a series of questions, reflective and restrained, juxtaposed with sections of harsh words and percussive sound striking like whips.

Undeniably, the music is attractive and memorable. The language is steeped in Biblical allusions and quotation so that it is familiar but not so familiar that it washes blandly over the listener. All sources of words are acknowledged and elsewhere Jonathan shows his expertise in setting his own well-chosen words to music.

Jonathan expresses the hope that the music will speak to any who will hear. This reviewer found this to be true. So, immerse yourselves in these songs and the words and you will be richly rewarded.”

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The following article by Jane Tolerton appeared Spanz magazine – Winter 2016 pg 11

Choir sings from heart on new CD

The Festival Singers’ new CD of religious music for New Zealand congregations was recorded at Island Bay Presbyterian Church. Island Bay minister the Rev Nathan Parry remembers the day he asked the children of the congregation, “Do you know what I do for a living?”

“You sing,” one boy said.

“I realised that much of what I do does involve singing,” says Nathan. Shortly afterwards he joined the Festival Singers, and was delighted when Island Bay Presbyterian Church was chosen as the venue for the recording of a new CD of religious songs for New Zealanders titled People of the Light.

“I joined the choir to do something fun, to get better at singing myself. I thought it was a cool thing to be involved in putting together a CD of New Zealand-written church songs. I was quite surprised they chose our church to record the CD. Jonathan Berkahn, who wrote nearly all the songs, is very eclectic and creative. He uses a variety of styles and instruments. So it was a lot of fun, and a privilege, both for me and the church, to be involved.”

Four members of the Island Bay church are in the Festival Singers, and the church now uses songs from the CD in their services. “We try to use as much New Zealand music as we can, and often use the works of the Rev Malcolm Gordon, who is currently based in Dunedin,” says Nathan.

Jonathan Berkahn, director of the Festival Singers, is also director of music at Onslow Anglicans at St Barnabas, Khandallah. His main day job is teaching counterpoint and harmony at the New Zealand School of Music at Victoria University.

“The CD came out late last year, and we have already had a lot of positive feedback – not only from churches but from people who have put it to use for their own particular spiritual purposes and sometimes in a very practical way. A friend was packing up and moving during a time of personal crisis. She played the first track, the Advent Song, over and over to get through it,” says Jonathan.

He writes his songs for his own faith community. “There is obviously an individual sensibility at work, but I am concentrating on designing songs that speak to and for a community.

“Writing songs for singing in churches is a very interesting discipline because the limitations are so tight. You have about an octave in range, it’s got to work in a very large public space and it’s got to make people want to sing.

“When I preach from the pulpit I say all sorts of things that come into my head. It doesn’t matter if it is nonsense because it is coming out of my mouth. But when I am making people sing the words themselves, the words have to be ones people identity with themselves. It’s not about me, it’s about them. I find this the single most interesting way of making music that I am engaged in.”

Jonathan chose Island Bay Presbyterian Church not only because four choir members are based there, but because of a performance there in 2014

“I liked the way the choir sounded in there. The way in which the space makes you feel in terms of acoustics has a huge effect on the kind of performance a choir gives. When I was drawing up a list of potential venues, I remembered the way the choir sounded at Island Bay.

“And the church had everything we needed: a piano on site, electronic organ to tune up and a drum kit. My only anxiety was traffic noise but we managed that pretty well. Another important factor was that Nathan and the choir members made us very welcome, and there was a feeling of buy-in from the whole church.”

Conductor Guy Jansen formed the Festival Singers in 1976, with an emphasis on encouraging younger singers. “It’s always been a Christian choir, set up to enable churches to hear and sing music they wouldn’t otherwise be able to hear and sing,” says Jonathan.

Khandallah Presbyterian Church in Wellington will host a reunion and service for the choir’s 40th birthday 15-16 October. Details are on the website: www.festivalsingers.wordpress.com.

People of the Light is available for $25 through festivityproductions@gmail.com.

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Spirited People CD review

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Published in Spanz June 2008 (Presbyterian Church of New Zealand magazine.)

Reviewed by Roy Tankersley

Festival Singers is a well-known community choir with a history and practice of working alongside the Church through services and concerts. This album presents recent works by New Zealand composers that they hoped would appeal through the immediacy of the texts and he accessibility of the music. They have succeeded.

The first track opens with the poignant solo voice of Janey MacKenzie singing Virgin Birth – music by Colin Gibson and words by Joy Cowley. Straightaway one is linked to Rebecca Gilling’s beautiful cover design based around the image of a flame.

Talented performer and composer Jonathan Berkahn leads us into his spirited The New Song with its punchy dialogue between men and women. His Te Deum that follows gets to the heart of the text with its Celtic flavour throughout. This is no clip-on Celtic style – these are traditional sounds blended beautifully with the vocal lines. One wants to get up and dance when one hears the Irish folk jigs and reels in such movements as “Day by day we magnify you…!”

The tone of the choir is warm and gently vibrant while being well balanced. Although at times one may wish for a little more energetic edge, they sing from the heart with assured intonation and communicate the text throughout with subtle gradations of tone. The centre piece is Colin Gibson’s The Spirit Within, commissioned by St John’s in the City, Wellington, in 2000. (This reviewer had the honour of preparing and conducting the premiere performance.) Gibson tells of God, the majestic and awe-inspiring, whose Spirit surprises us in our dreams or a flash of light. He also provokes us to respond to poverty and injustice. It is good to have this work accompanied by string quartet, organ and piano with sensitivity and style. Four soloists and four readers perform well throughout the work and complement the thoughtful singing from the choir.

For the recording Festival Singers chose the wonderful ambience of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart – so much better than using digitally enhanced ambience. The CD is well engineered throughout and accolades to Rosemary Russell for guiding these spirited people with such creativity and understanding.

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Spirited People CD Review

Reviewed by John Thornley, in Music in the Air – December 2007

 Where blows the Spirit?
Where is the heart that should beat?
Only in people, spirited people,
people who walk on our street.

  Music © Colin Gibson   Words © Shirley Erena Murray

This new CD shares an inspired pairing of two significant and complementary longer compositions: Colin Gibson’s cantata, The Spirit Within and Jonathan Berkhan’s Te Deum, supported by individual items from Colin, Jonathan, Philip Garside and Rosemary Russell.

At the centre of this 30-track CD are the 19 individual pieces that make up Colin Gibson’s cantata, written in 2000.

I share a working definition for ‘cantata’, found in the 1992 Bloomsbury Dictionary of Music:

A sacred or secular composition for solo voice or voices, or for chorus and solo voice or voices, accompanied by several instruments or orchestra. A cantata will often by dramatic, but it is not intended to be staged.

Linked by spoken reflections, this work locates God in the indigenous landscape and seasons of Aotearoa New Zealand, using poetry and song to evoke the emergent Spirit for our land and people. Art song settings, reminiscent of Douglas Lilburn’s Sings Harry, Elegy and other song cycles, use poems by Anne Glenny Wilson, Joy Cowley, Ursula Bethell, R.A.K.Mason and Lauris Edmond.  Any and/or all of these could find a place within a worship service, with the words included in any printed handout.

Southerly Sunday is the title of the Bethell poem. The rhythmic agitation of keyboard notes pulsing under the ‘billowing’ choir harmonies evokes the southerly winds driving in on the poet’s garden home on Banks Peninsula, giving way to the soloists’ gentler interwoven melodies which beautifully capture ‘the sunshine/lacing, interlocking, invisible effervescence’ and ‘the laughter of light and air at play overhead’.

On the Swag is R.A.K.Mason’s classic statement of Christ’s humanity. To the accompaniment of a steady walking piano tempo, tenor soloist Edmund Hintz captures the lonely tramp, an iconic figure from the Depression era. The final lines of proclamation (‘Bring him in cook from the cold, level sleet/Put silk on this body and slippers on his feet’), now with choral voices rising to the crescendo sung declamation: ‘For this is Christ’.

Traditional classical settings, performed by piano/organ and a string quartet, are provided for hymn words by Shirley Erena Murray and Colin as wordsmith as well as composer.

Congregational favourites include These Hills, Let Justice Roll Down, The Folly of Love and I Sing the Grace of God. Influences include the pioneer NZ composers, influenced by the example of English composers like Elgar and Vaughan Williams, along with a baroque setting for Let Justice Roll Down, whose opening bars recall the famous Canon by Johann Pachelbel. A particular delight was the repetitive patter of cicada wings heard in the staccato stringed arrangement for Anne Glenny Wilson’s poem A Spring Afternoon in New Zealand:

We rode in the shadowy place of pines,
the wind went whispering here and there
like whispers in a house of prayer.
The sunshine stole in narrow lines,
and sweet was the resinous atmosphere.

The second major work is a Celtic treatment of the Te Deum, with text taken from the Anglican Prayer Book/He Karakia Mihinare o Aotearoa (1989). Composer and lead performer on organ/piano/accordion is Palmerston North-born musician, Jonathan Berkahn. The Celtic Band members provide an exhilaratingly earthed accompaniment with Celtic flute, acoustic guitar, whistle, bodhran and violin. The treatment ranges from ecstatic dance to soulful folk ballad, according to the differing sections of the Te Deum liturgy – embracing an opening invocation to God, through praise/thanksgiving to petition/confession. The solid beating of the bodhran, the arpeggios on violin and accordion plant the prayers firmly on earth ground. And over all, the strong affirmation and prayerful reflection of the 50 voice choir.  It’s both deeply sensuous and spiritual.

Musical director Rosemary Russell, a member of the Titahi Bay Gospel Chapel, brings to the project many years of choral work, including the composition of original works. The choral singing throughout is confident and assured, with variations of men/women and solo/ensemble enriching the dynamics and texture of sounds. There is outstanding solo work by four sopranos, Janey Mackenzie, Felicity Smith, Marian Hawke and Frances Moore, and by tenor Edmund Hintz.

The production work by Phil Hornblow of Vision Studios, Neil Maddever and Rosemary Russell is exemplary, with great clarity of both individual instruments, and fuller group orchestrations, and solo and choral vocals. Intonation is commendable; the articulation of words is given proper attention.

A booklet, including the full words of songs and readings, is well presented and easy to read.

All material was recorded on 29 April and 30 June, 2007 with the Sacred Heart Cathedral, Hill Street, Wellington, offering excellent acoustics.

A linking narrative, written by Colin Gibson, holds together the selection of song, poem and hymn, ensuring that the theological underpinning is sustained. The words matter, stating a clear message for the daily lives of Christians in our Antipodean home place, our 21st century times. Here’s the commentary that follows Folly of Love, a song coming towards to end of the cantata:

Ah! There at last is the clearest signature of your presence, Holy Spirit, friend, comforter and abiding presence.

Not in the wind and fire of miraculous events, but in the small graces, the daily sympathies, the ordinariness of our common love for each other. When that love is the truth of our relationships in action, when we exclude no one and nothing from the circle of our care and compassion, then the Spirit of the living Christ takes dwelling within us and is known to us as we are known to the heart of God.

The readers are Maureen Garing, Michael Keith, Ian Livingstone and Barbara Vaughan Murray.

There is a continuous narrative binding the 30 tracks all together. To quote from the CD booklet: ‘We are reminded that the Spirit of God touches us through all our senses in the rural landscape, and later we asked, ‘How do we see God in the busy life of the city?’  We are challenged to take seriously Jesus’ model of service and sacrifice, in our everyday lives. Finally, the choices we make really do matter to God, and this noisy world of multiple tensions will pass into an eternity of peace, in his own timeless presence.’ (CD notes by Rosemary Russell).

I love the way the recording, after a some times turbulent voyage of the soul, ends on a soft and reflective mood. The ‘lusty’ (John Wesley language here!) fulsome singing of tracks 26 (I sing the grace of God) and 28 (Praise the all-sustaining Word) gently subsides in to a Burt Bacharach-styled  jazz ballad by Rosemary Russell, performed to a blues-tinged café piano with a pick of  kiwi clichés as hymn words – a nice touch!

And at the end of the day,
it’s how we live that matters.
We all have hearts, we all have minds,
we all have lives to share.
Where’s there’s a will there’s a way.
It’s which way we choose that matters.
We all have a voice, we all have a choice,
but wisdom is rather rare.

The following and final track is a marvellous setting by Colin Gibson for some lines from the 17th century Metaphysical poet John Donne, lifting our horizon from our small land to the whole wide world, and from our earthly life to the promise of a heavenly home. Its sublime and rhetorical diction is at the opposite pole from the previous track, I did not know this poem but it’s a delight to discover. It is worth quoting in full:

Lord us, O Lord God, at our last awakening
into the house and gate of heaven,
to dwell into those gates,
and dwell in that house,
where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling,
but one equal light;
no noise nor silence, but one equal music;
no fears nor hopes but one equal possession;
no ends, nor beginnings, but one equal eternity
in the habitations of Thy majesty
and Thy glory.

World without end,
world without end,
world without end.

When the final notes quietly die out on the repeated ‘world without end’, the listener can only affirm the journey offered through the CD tracks, by saying quietly to him or her self:

AMEN.

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Tell My People CD

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Review

“As a very fitting celebration of 25 years of singing Christian music the Festival Singers, based in Wellington, have issued this compact disc. Some of the material is new but much of it has been skillfully re- mastered from analogue tracks recorded fifteen or more years ago. It is difficult to tell the difference.

The selection of music varies from traditional hymns such as Dear Lord and Father of Mankind through a range of hymns from New Zealand writers to Ave Maria by Igor Stravinsky. Most of it comes off well but there is no doubt that the Festival Singers do better with contemporary writing.

John Rutter’s Jesus Child and his setting of The Lord Bless You and Keep You that respectively begin and end the CD are particularly noteworthy as is Jenny McLeod’s Indigo II, the West Indian Lord’s Prayer with a splendid solo from Peter Baillie and a lovely rendition of Who is Moving though the Silence.

Congratulations to the Festival Singers, their conductor, Mark Leicester, and recording engineer, Richard Hulse. This is a CD well worth a place in the collection of anyone who enjoys good, well considered Christian music across a wide spectrum of styles.”

Maureen Garing
Crosslink, March 2001

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