Choir connects with historical gems

By William Dart

Brahms a drawcard as pianists join Viva Voce to perform crowd favourites as well as rarer scores

John Rosser, musical director of Viva Voce, founded the choir almost 30 years ago.
John Rosser, musical director of Viva Voce, founded the choir almost 30 years ago.

On the eve of Four Hands, 30 Voices, Viva Voce's first concert of the season, founder and musical director John Rosser finds it difficult to believe that his chamber choir is just one year away from its thirtieth anniversary.

"It was set up in 1985 because existing choirs weren't catering for the new generation of singers coming through the National Youth Choir," Rosser says.

"I wanted to start something fresh. A choir that would grab an audience and say, 'Come and listen to some choral music"'.

Who would have thought, back in the comparatively unruffled 1980s, that we would now be facing what Rosser describes as "the challenge of dealing with the Facebook generation, one which wants to live their lives through a screen.

"It's harder than ever to get people to go to live concerts and experience something a little bit different."

Nevertheless, over three decades, Viva Voce has earned a loyal following in the city, with audiences that enjoy the choir's lively, theme-based presentations.

After tomorrow's Four Hands, 30 Voices, there are concerts of persuasive love songs in August, joyful psalms in October and, in December, a stroll on the lighter side in VV Rocks!

Rosser enjoys finding a central concept that threads through music that might otherwise be "16 to 20 three-minute wonderpieces that have nothing to do with one another".

Four Hands, 30 Voices has the choir joined by young pianists Judy Lee and Kento Isomura to sing and play the likes of Brahms, Schumann, Faure alongside contemporary composers like Eric Whitacre and our own David Hamilton.

For Rosser, these works are "vocal chamber music", hearkening back to Tudor times, when anyone worth their social salt could join an after-dinner madrigal.

He is an admirer of "that madrigal type of culture. Having a group come together, singing in a wide range of musical styles, develops a real esprit de corps".

Tomorrow, a selection from the Brahms Liebeslieder Waltzes will be the drawcard for some.

"They're so tender, and beautifully lyrical," Rosser enthuses, proud to be using scores edited by Robert Shaw and Roger Wagner, two of the most celebrated American choral conductors.

You can hear rare gems from the Romantic era, such as Schumann's Dunkler Lichtglanz, a bittersweet love song laid around the central image of "Peace and war in a single heart" but there are also familiar favourites like Schubert's popular Serenade.

"This brings back memories of my time in the National Youth Choir in 1982, singing it with Kiri Te Kanawa," Rosser laughs.

"The soloist tomorrow is the stunning Milla Dickens, one of New Zealand Opera's Emerging Artists. The song calls for a mezzo, but a soprano with Milla's warmth can sing it too."

Rosser is particularly keen on Sunday's contemporary offerings which include music by three Stateside composers: Eric Whitacre, Morten Lauridsen and Denes Agay.

He admits to being very selective with works from the American scene. "So many of them are extraordinarily bland and don't speak to me with any drama," he says. "But Morten Lauridsen stands out as someone who isn't just about sonorities for their own sake, but one who has a deep connection with the music of the past."

Listen out for The Bridge of Love, by Aucklander David Hamilton, whom Rosser describes as "quite partial to the sound of choir with piano".

"Like Whitacre, David has a real sense of vocal sonority. These men know what's going to work for voices," he stresses.

"A lot of composers may write what appears to be in the right place, but somehow they don't have a feeling for what will actually sound good."


Performance

What: Viva Voce: Four Hands, 30 Voices

Where and when: Auckland Town Hall Concert Chamber, Sunday 23 March at 5pm

- NZ Herald

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