GALS: The Full Catastrophe
Saturday 13 August
Michael Park Auditorium, Auckland
The difference was immediately, audibly and visually apparent from the first song, in fact some of the first syllables, of their Sunday concert, The Full Catastrophe.
Drawing on songs inspired by disasters ranging from personal tragedies to the Christchurch earthquakes and Fukushima, GALS kicked off with Pompeii (Smith, arr: Narverud). Those syllables, âEheu eh-o eheu eh-oâ don't look much as typed but in performance they should reach out and grab you... and they did. With shoulders squared, chests forward, heads back, diaphragms pumped and all eyes lazer-focussed on the conductor the sound GALS massed voices pushed out was cohesive and, as Pompeii progressed, full of verve and confidence right through the vocal range. I cannot have been the only person in the audience to think âWow, something's happening here!â
Next up, Katherine Bell's Te Mea Nui, incorporating words from traditional Maori proverbs and drawing on the Christchurch earthquakes, was spiritual and moving, rich in vocal textures and an especially good choice to showcase the sopranos and contraltos. Bell herself was in the audience and the applause for both the choir and the composer was loud, enthusiastic and genuinely offered.
Kibo/Hope (Rentz, words/translation: Hill) was simple, sweet and warm and the Caribbean lilt of I've Been In The Storm So Long (Trad., arr: Ames) could have been written especially for soloist Margaret Robertson who, beautifully backed by the choir, absolutely, resolutely nailed it.
By now it was becoming noticeable that
GALS had eschewed the campery and schtick with which they have in the
past attempted to enliven their concerts. The focus was more confidently on the songs,
the voices and the sound. Less of a variety show and more of a choral concert.
By invidious comparison, the next offering was an experiment which didn't quite come off. Aaron Evans' solo spot, Skyfall (Adele, Paul Epworth) was somewhat sabotaged by MC par excellence David Steemson invoking Adele before Evans had even opened his mouth. For the first time I can recall a pre-recorded backing track was used but the sound quality was thin, the mix wrong, the vocal lacking in reverb compared to the backing and it was all a bit flat. A technical intervention including foldback speakers or an earpiece to aid pitch and perhaps the choir vocally augmenting the backing for timbre and richness might have done better justice to the song and to the singer.
Most comedic choral work relies on crisp diction, lively demeanour and perfect unison and GALS' tangy The Twelve Days after Christmas (Frederick Silver) was as crisp and as unified as I have ever heard them achieve, probably even more-so.
At this stage things began to run out of steam a little. Save Me (Mercury, arr: Bremer) started off a little flaccidly and never quite recovered. The rather limp arrangement didn't help. But Send In The Clowns (Sondheim, arr: Martin) was gratifyingly melodious, plaintive yet uplifting, with spot-on phrasing.
The three special pieces by The Project, an adventurous sub-group of past and present GALS women singers coached by Wendy Moore, were a mixed bag. Somewhere Over The Rainbow (Arlen/Harburg, arr: Moore) exceptionally well arranged and presented in tight-harmony barbershop style was a gem. An Appalachian folk song Shady Grove (Trad, arr: Moore) was rather less effective and the Bonnie Raitt classic Take My Love With You (Kennedy/Kirkpatrick/Price, arr: Moore) a bold and promising experiment which needed the conductor in full control rather than providing percussion from the sidelines.
Bohemian Rapsody (Mercury, arr: Brymer) is an epic and exuberant piece which could never survive multiple amputations down to about two minutes and this was not GALS - or Brymer's - best moment. Landslide (Stevie Nicks) was a little tentative but Funeral Blues (Auden, Huff) showed promise with good phrasing and effective vocal light and shade.
Things got more confident with Fix You (Berryman, Champion, Martin, Buckland, arr: Lawson) a tried-and-true GALS staple, then dipped a tad, with Do You Hear The People Sing (Schonberg, Kretzmer, arr: Lojeski) lacking some of the necessary power and the sopranos sounding just a bit strained. The giant rainbow flag standing in for the French Tricolore was a visual knock-out and crowd-pleaser though.
I Will Survive/Survivor (arr: Anders/Astrom) showed the wisdom of augmenting the piano accompaniment with a bass guitar and drums for several songs in this concert but the confident and at times wonderfully gritty singing in this piece was undermined by poor balance, with the melody lines by Mini Gals frequently overpowered by the full choir and band.
And that was it, except for an encore and for this GALS very effectively reverted to type.
As the choir powered their way through a Titanic movie classic moment the irrepressible Steemson â in God-awful skirt and even worse wig - and a fellow pseudo-drag king mime heroically took the piss as they met, fell in love, lurched to starboard, struggled through surging waters, swam for their lives, searched in mounting desperation and finally, over-over-over-wrought, sank without a trace - but with plenty of bubbles of course. A classic bonbon ending to a very promising concert.
GALS is clearly starting to move in a new direction, having just a few months ago placed themselves in the hands of Musical Director Nicholas Forbes. Forbes is a remarkable talent, a singer, conductor, organist and musical phenomenon of nationally-respected accomplishment. His drive, flair for presentation, choral smarts and slightly impish demeanour (perfectly exemplified when the Titanic flautist struck an instrumental iceberg and Forbes lightly dashed across to the pianist's side and without missing a beat fed in the flute line himself) augur well for the future.
The choir's responsiveness to his leadership indicates that the best elements of The Full Catastrophe are where GALS is now headed. Full steam ahead!
- Jay Bennie