Pop CultureJuly 9, 2024

Three New Zealand choirs that made me cry


As some of the world’s best choirs descend on Auckland for the World Choir Games, Ben Fagan remembers the times Aotearoa’s best choirs have brought on the waterworks.

There’s something straightforward about a choir. Often when they take the stage there are no expensive instruments. Nothing to plug into a speaker. Nothing to switch on. Just people standing in rows, then opening their mouths. Sometimes a piano.

Lots of people are doing it, too. There is a vibrant, national, inter-school choral competition, plus several hundred community choirs, shanty clubs, musical theatre choruses, operatic ensembles, rōpū waiata and barbershop quartets. There are also a small handful of choirs with the stated goal of excellence. Aiming, and succeeding, at singing at a level equal to the best in the world.

Before I worked for The Spinoff I was lucky enough to be employed by some of these choirs. They are nationally auditioned, with singers flown in from across the country to rehearse and perform together. I carried bags and marked people as “present” while they gave concerts in some of the biggest, smallest and most beautiful venues in the country.

After listening to hours and hours worth of rehearsals and performances, and even after becoming slightly numb to high quality singing, here are three songs from our national choirs (plus a bonus to lighten the mood) that still get me every time.

NZ Secondary Students’ Choir 

Singing ‘Only in Sleep’, composed by Ēriks Ešenvalds

The NZ Secondary Students’ Choir is for top choral singers aged 14-18. Full of eager high schoolers exuding energy and enthusiasm. 

This performance of ‘Only in Sleep’ was recorded in Auckland, in 2022. This song is composed by Ēriks Ešenvalds with century-old poetry by Sara Teasdale, and is a favourite of the choir’s Music Director Susan Densem.

Some combination of the singers’ age and the text, plus the knowledge that it was one of their last performances as a group (they reauditon every two years, most of them ageing out of the choir), brought several unexpected tears.

Only in sleep I see their faces,
Children I played with when I was a child,
Louise comes back with her brown hair braided,
Annie with ringlets warm and wild.


NZ Youth Choir

Singing ‘Waerenga-a-Hika’ by Tuirina Wehi, arranged by Robert Wiremu

The New Zealand Youth Choir is the older sibling of the NZSSC, taking 18-25-year-old singers from around the country. 

This recording of ‘Waerenga-a-Hika’ is from 2016, during one of their visits to London. It features soloist Natasha Te Rupe Wilson who, like many NZYC alum, has gone on to a successful operatic career. The power and lament of Natasha’s voice cuts through the chanting, and evokes something between a military march, a love song, and a eulogy.

The choir posted this song to their Facebook page after the 15 March terrorist attack. Music director David Squire thought there was something in this piece which might help mark the moment. Reflect some of the grief. It became one of the choir’s first viral videos, crossing context and language and is still resonating hundreds of thousands of views later.

The original song by Tuirina Wehi speaks of the siege and tragedy of Waerenga, a battle in the New Zealand Wars that saw up to 200 European Settlers and 300 Māori lay siege to, and then devastate, the pā Waerenga-a-hika. Hundreds from the pā were taken prisoner and 71 were killed.

Not long after March 15 I travelled to Whānagrei with the choir, and watched a packed room weep quietly to themselves. The lingering solo voice at the end haunts me still.

Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir

Eric Whitacre conducts Voices New Zealand (Photo: Jo Miller)

Singing ‘The Sacred Veil – XII. Child of Wonder’

There are no full time, professional choirs in New Zealand. It is the longstanding dream of many but until some fundraising windfall, the closest we have is NZ’s top choir Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir. 

Full of graduates from the previous two choirs, Music director Dr Karen Grylls occasionally lets visiting musicians conduct this ensemble, as happened in 2022 when superstar composer Eric Whitacre came to town.

Whitacre is a household name in households where both parents are singers. He did have some cut through with his virtual choir series back in the early days of YouTube and several of his compositions have become choral staples.

‘The Sacred Veil’ is a 12 movement work written by Whitacre, using the writing of his friend, the poet Charles Anthony “Tony” Silvestri. From Whitacre: “the entire work tells the story of Tony’s life with his late wife Julie Silvestri, chronicling their rich marriage together, their courtship, the birth of their children, Julie’s diagnosis of ovarian cancer, her treatment, her struggle, and finally, her death.”

‘Child of Wonder’ is the heart-breaking conclusion to the twelve movements, bringing the choir and audience to the moment of Julie’s death.

Child of wonder
Child of sky
Time to end your voyage
Time to die

Pretty bare, but it’s not just poetry, it’s lyrics – Whitacre’s composition elevating the beautiful but ultimately shattering love story.

The performances in Auckland and Wellington weren’t recorded, but you can listen to British ensemble VOCES8 sing it just as proficiently as Voices New Zealand here (with the nicest speakers or headphones you can find, please). You can also check out the full work on YouTube

In Auckland the performances were accompanied by the lyrics projected on two screens, so there was no hiding from the pain. They were also accompanied by loud crying. Several people had to leave. It’s a painful and moving piece.

BONUS: All the school choirs at once

To leave you in a lighter mood, here’s ‘I Sing Because I’m Happy’, conducted by Karen Grylls and belted out by 800+ clearly tired high school students at the Auckland Town Hall. This recording is from the end of the national high school choral competition The Big Sing last year. There’s something simple about it, they’re just standing in rows and singing.

Keep going!