Christmas is a time when choirs come out to play. In the next few weeks we'll hear Handel's Messiah from Auckland Choral; Sol3 Mio singing carols at The Civic and almost every church in town will host a community group or choir coming together in Yuletide song.

Stimmung Choir, on the other hand, will appear at Q Theatre next Sunday to sing The Smashing Pumpkins' 90s staple Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. It's not very Christmassy, is it?

"No, it's not," admits Robin Kelly, the choir's founder and music director. "But name me some Christmas music you actually want to hear. The album is about bookends, so in terms of closing the year, it feels appropriate. There's a dawn-to-dusk arc to it."

However, Stimmung is not performing the whole album; at a smidgen under two hours, Kelly believes it's too long for a single concert, so the group will sing what people of a certain age will remember as disc one. Stimmung is sinking the arc.

Advertisement

"Well, yeah," Kelly says, "subverting the arc a bit."

Performing half of the album means that some of Mellon Collie's best songs have been jettisoned, including 1979, which went top 10 in New Zealand.

"I don't think I could do 1979 justice," says Kelly. "It's a subtle song; subtle's not something this concert excels at."

As well as a full choir, the show features a four-piece rock band, harp, vibraphone, oboe and, says Kelly, as many strings as he can convince to play. So no, not subtle, but then, listening to Mellon Collie almost 25 years on, and the shimmering 1979 notwithstanding, neither is the album.

"It's overblown in so many ways," Kelly admits cheerfully. "And there are moments [Smashing Pumpkins leader/singer/songwriter] Billy Corgan's marking emotional beats. I don't mind that, because to me that's a sign of his attempt to do something I've always loved in people who do it well, which is to bring a theatrical quality."

Robin Kelly with Stimmung Choir. Photo / Tatiana Harper Photography
Robin Kelly with Stimmung Choir. Photo / Tatiana Harper Photography

Kelly gave up a promising career in science for the uncertainty of freelance life as a music director and sound designer. His most impressive achievement to date is the autobiographical show Valerie, which he wrote and then scored with his own songs.

Valerie – which won a slew of awards, including an Edinburgh Fringe First prize – explored his family's mental health and Kelly's been open about his own experiences. Is Stimmung another expression of that; is the choir a form of group therapy for him?

"It's definitely self-exploration," Kelly allows. "If you struggle with anxiety and depression, I think you gravitate to positions where you can shrug that off. I found that when you lead a choir and have to bring 30 people along to your level of enthusiasm, you are the best version of yourself.

Advertisement

"You step into a role where you need leadership and drive, and you draw on all those positive things, so it's therapeutic in that way. But it's double edged, because it's depleting as well and I've taken time away from choir for myself when I've not had the energy to devote to 30 other people. Luckily, they are understanding of that."

The core members of Stimmung have been together for years and the choir, which meets weekly, doesn't require auditions to join. Previous shows have focused on Radiohead and Queens of the Stone Age with the likes of Ria Hall, Laughton Kora, Paul McLaney and Troy Kingi performing.

While Kelly says there are healthy doses of nostalgia and irony to Stimmung's concerts, the music is performed with genuine affection.

"What keeps it from being cynical is that we spent six months rehearsing Smashing Pumpkins songs because I love them. There's a fondness to this, and by the time and effort we're putting in, we're showing it respect."

At 31, Kelly is too young to have experienced this music first hand.

"Mellon Collie was released when I was seven, so by the time I discovered it at 14, it was a bit of a throwback, like what your cool aunt would be listening to. To me it was countercultural."

Lowdown
What: Stimmung Choir sings Smashing Pumpkins' Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness
Where & When: Q Theatre, Sunday, December 15