It's said that more New Zealanders sing in choirs than play rugby. Richard Betts investigates whether choir singing has the emotional, mental and spiritual benefits its proponents claim.
They don't tell you about the noise.
I'm sitting within touching distance of the sopranos at Auckland Choral's final rehearsal before a free Sunday concert. I have never been this close to a 100-piece choir and I expect to be enveloped in a balmy late-summer glow of sound. The group, however, is lustily singing O Fortuna, the famous bit from Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, and my ears are ringing, my trousers fluttering – possibly – from the power.
Auckland Choral has quite a history. The choir goes back to 1855 and has performed Handel's Messiah each year since 1867, except one. That was 1918, when public gatherings were banned because of the influenza pandemic. The singers are rightly proud of their record.
Though Auckland Choral is the oldest and one of the best, it's far from the only choir operating in the city. The New Zealand Choral Federation (NZCF) boasts 21,000 members across hundreds of choirs, and that doesn't include the informal groups that meet every week in churches and schools and the numerous other places people gather. NZCF claims that more Kiwis sing in choirs than play rugby.
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This year New Zealand will experience massed singing on an unprecedented scale. In July, Auckland hosts the World Symposium on Choral Music 2020, which means we'll get performances, workshops and masterclasses from some of the discipline's leading figures.
It's right that we should hold this; our top choirs, notably Voices NZ and the New Zealand Youth Choir, are international class. Both groups have benefited from their association with formidable genius Karen Grylls, who founded the first, was for many years music director of the second, and is regarded as one of the best choir conductors in the world. Unsurprisingly, she is heavily involved with the symposium.
Right now, Auckland Arts Festival has choral music covering all bases from the highbrow – Los Angeles Master Chorale sung Orlando di Lasso's Lagrime di San Pietro last night – to the APO's free singalonga Ludwig performance of Beethoven's Choral Symphony tomorrow and the Soweto Gospel Choir on Wednesday.
Where choir singing was once considered the preserve of high-voiced boys wearing cassocks, its appeal has become broader and cooler, spurred by groups that shy away from traditional choral music and don't require auditions (or cassocks) to take part.
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Arguably the coolest is Stimmung Choir, which meets every Monday in a prefabricated Pt Chevalier church. The group performs one public concert every year, and instead of Orff or Handel, the repertoire is rock music. So far Stimmung has sung complete albums by Radiohead and Queens of the Stone Age, and, most recently, half of the Smashing Pumpkins' Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. The choir accepts anyone who wants to sing, so ability is mixed.
That suits me, because I put my minim where my mouth is and join a Stimmung rehearsal. It's a friendly, informal atmosphere, as much a social endeavour as an artistic one, with as many newcomers as people greeting old mates for this first rehearsal of the year. There are a few beautiful people here, a couple of theatre luminaries, an actor or two from Outrageous Fortune spinoff Westside, but not everyone works in the arts.
Josephine, who says she's been involved with the choir for a couple of years, has brought first-timers Camilla and Sarah. The three are old friends from their school days, and none of them have done any singing since. Camilla's driven right across town, from Half Moon Bay. She says she's here because she wanted to do something for herself and couldn't find a suitable taxidermy course. Sarah is recently back in New Zealand, following an international career in PR, and is hoping to meet new people in Auckland. She agreed to come tonight because she had a few wines on Boxing Day and was talked into it.
Josephine says Robin Kelly is the best thing about Stimmung. An award-winning theatrical music director, Kelly leads everything, conducting, playing guitar and piano and writing the four-part harmonies.
He encourages and cajoles and sighs in an exaggeratedly frustrated manner as he takes us through Sunshine on the Water by New Zealander Tama Waipara. The song means a lot to Kelly and the choristers.
It's the one they sang together at their first meeting following the 2019 Christchurch mosque attack, their attempt to find comfort in the face of atrocity, and acknowledge those who passed: "Like sunshine on the water you are golden/no matter where you are."
"Altos, if you think this is a safe space, it's not," Kelly grins, as he takes the choir through rehearsal.
He thinks the large number of lower female voices is allowing too many singers to hide. I am not an alto, I am a baritone. I am unable to hide. Of the 60 or so people here, 10 are men, of which maybe half are baritones. This is unfortunate for me and, perhaps, the people around me. As we sing, I know I'm harmonising. I also know it's absolutely not the harmony Robin Kelly has asked for. No one cares, not even Kelly. It's just as well, because at times we make an awful racket.
"Strong and wrong!" cries Kelly at one point, applying the same good humour he has shown throughout. "People need time for their ears to open up," he says during a break. "I focus more on building the enthusiasm to stoke their fire."
What, then, separates Stimmung from the terrace chanting of a sporting event?
"It's the people who hang around," Kelly says. "They come every week because they get something out of what we do. We spent months rehearsing Queens of the Stone Age. If you get people chanting that just once at a football match, that's one thing. If you keep coming back and refining it, practising it, it shows they're as ambitious for it as I am."
Ambition will not get you into Auckland Choral. Nor will a good voice, though you absolutely need one of those. You must be musically literate, able to read a vocal part and pass an audition.
The process, and Uwe Grodd, Auckland Choral's music director, ensure quality choral singing ensues.
"There were many good things," he says, after a run-through of Verdi's Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves. "But..."
There is always a but, even though the repertoire is familiar. "You know these pieces so my job is easy, but it's got to be fresh, it's got to be new."
Here he is aided by Morag Atchison. Atchison, the first Doctor of Musical Arts to graduate from a New Zealand university, made her professional debut with Auckland Choral in the mid-1990s. She's also an Associate of London's Royal Academy of Music, and when she's not stealing the show on stage, as she did in NZ Opera's 2019 production of The Barber of Seville, she is lecturer in voice at Auckland University. She sings in the national choir, Voices New Zealand, too.
Watching Atchison and Grodd dovetail is fascinating.
"Your humming is inconsistent," Grodd tells the singers after a ropey portion of Land of Hope and Glory. "I need you to sound the same."
Atchison provides the singers with the technical advice that gives Grodd what he wants, which in this case involves holding the tongue at the front of the mouth, as if you're about to say the letter "n". Who knew?
During a break I run into John Stevenson, who I interviewed a few years ago, when Auckland Choral performed its 100th Christmas Messiah in a row. I tell him it's good to see he's still singing with the group, and ask what makes him return year after year.
"I've been coming 30 years," he replies, "and every Wednesday I turn up and there's 100 of my friends."