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Hayley Westenra

... in a Christmas Concert with Pennine Brass and at the invitation of Huddersfield Methodist Choir


With hilltop views across the Pennines both my hotel and Huddersfield itself are exposed to the elements.

Coming up the M1 and taking the A429 across the Pennines was an absolute joy on this particular cold December day. It is the sort of day I believe Hayley enjoys, although I wonder about the wind and whether the air here is damper than in New Zealand, adding a particularly unwanted chill. The ‘crisp mornings’ she says she likes imply it is a dry cold that attracts Hayley and the crunching of freshly fallen snow.

Having dumped my bag, I headed into Huddersfield to get the feel of the place, especially locating the Town Hall where a very pleasant receptionist advised ‘It is going to be very busy tonight because we have got Hayley Westenra.’

‘Have you met her?’


‘Than grab the opportunity if you can, she’s an experience.’

‘Do you know her?’

‘To say ‘know’ would be presumptuous. This will be the tenth concert of hers I have attended over the last three or four months and she usually finds time to say ‘hello’ after the show. Will she be signing CDs or programmes afterwards do you know?’ but the receptionist did not know.

In the event CDs were not available, but in my short time passing around the theatre during the interval I overheard several people asking about and wanting to buy CDs. However, after the concert a dozen or so people, seemingly connected in various ways with the establishment or other performers, had been tipped off that Hayley would be prepared to sign programmes—which she did, adding ‘part 4’ to my programme, as I keep a running score of what she signs for me. I was glad to see a predominance of young people (early teens and younger) seeking the opportunity of a photocall with her on this occasion.

I also noticed, as she came down the stairs, her natural alertness for all that is going on around her. As she descended the last few steps of the staircase, enabling her to see the whole of the vestibule into which she was entering, her head swung quickly from right to left, like a camera panning a landscape her eyes, only obvious if you were looking at her directly, clearly taking-in everyone waiting for her, her mind assessing the situation into which she was walking: so natural, so casual, so in-charge of the situation, yet without appearing to command it in any way. Lady, I raise my hat.

Any criticism of Hayley has to start on the understanding that one is debating nuances of colour shading upon a platform called ‘Excellence”. How can one critique someone whose concerts range from cathedrals and abbeys, which she can fill to overflowing so that she has to come back three weeks later to fill the abbey again (Shrewsbury); to intimate theatres like ‘The Stables’ at Milton Keynes and ‘The Lowry’ at Manchester; from herself and a pianist and violinist, occasionally singing a cappella; to herself, pianist, violinist and cellist; to a full symphony orchestra (Royal Liverpool) in their gorgeous ‘art deco’ hall (the only symphony orchestra in the country to own its own concert hall). See elsewhere Roger’s reports on Liverpool and Shrewsbury—and my own, in due course, when I catch up with my sequence on what ‘The Hayley Phenomenon’ means to me.

Of all these, of late (and backed by Roger’s opinion, who has attended 30 Hayley concerts) Shrewsbury perhaps stands out, but why? For me, the ambiance of almost 1,000 years (1052 consecrated) of continuous Christian worship and a young woman of pure motive singing her heart out before the altar doubtless added emotion. But was it my imagination that caught a sense of ‘almost end of term, I’m going home soon’ helped her to really let go? To praise this, is not in any way to diminish fine performances elsewhere, in which she has had to adapt to widely different theatre ambiences and acoustics. However, I would now put Huddersfield on a par with Shrewsbury and was it again the influence of those few days closer to going home…?

This concert night of December 17th was in an absolutely gorgeous Victorian hall opened in 1881. To think of it as a town hall is wrong. It is a full concert hall with an organ, purchased second-hand from the Albert Hall Newport, South Wales. The town hall was originally a separate building backing the concert hall, the two being built intentionally as a complex, later ‘joined up’ as one building of multi-levels, a headache for making access for the disabled universal but the concert hall is due for a complete refurbishment in late summer 2006, including the organ and hopefully also the sound system.

The predominant colour of powder blue is lavishly picked out in a terracotta blush with gilt trimming, the ceiling, of deep and extravagant plaster work is richly depicted in blue, green and gilt. One thinks of St James’ theatre in Wellington and the Easton theatre in Penn as comparative venues for décor.

The connection with New Zealand is incredible. The conductor, Alan Brierley had spent a year working out there and had discovered that in a town called Denine (?spelling, but Belinda suggest Dunedin) they had a concert hall modelled on the Huddersfield one, which they regarded as having the best acoustics in any New Zealand hall!

Billed as ‘Hayley Westenra in a Christmas Concert with Pennine Brass and at the invitation of Huddersfield Methodist Choir’ there was no question we were in for an excellent evening, the stage fronted and the hall hung with Victorian style garland decorations.

Would Hayley, who at 14 had given a rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’ to the skirl of a full Scottish pipe band, do the same with a Brass band? The 8pp programme with full colour pictures devoted a whole page of text to Hayley, listing some of the people with whom she had sung and previous venues.

There was a lovely quote, …Hayley says ‘I think I have moved on as a vocalist’. It was a comment I had made to her when I had first met her at Derngate (part 5 on my discourse of what Hayley means to me), where I felt sure I detected an increased richness in her voice in those few months between The Palladium and Derngate theatres.

On this particular Saturday We were greeted by the Huddersfield Methodist Choir decked out in air force blue blouses, black skirts and (what I was told I could call a ‘scarf’) hanging loosely round the neck joining at the stomach in hunting pink (i.e. ‘red’!). The men wore traditional DJs while the band wore black uniforms with scarlet lapels and gold braid trim. Their instruments were polished to a degree of excellence that the most demanding RSM would have rated as ‘A1’. The whole was an audience ready for an evening of festive entertainment and that is what everyone on stage gave them.

The concert opened with an invitation for the audience to be upstanding and join choir and band in the first carol ‘Christians Awake’.

Then, under their conductor Ian Porthouse, the Pennine Brass Band performed two pieces: ‘Shining Star’ by Peter Graham and ‘Yuledance’ by Philip Harper. Now, I am not a person who has ever been enamoured of a brass band. So if I say that the pieces (as with the following items) were not only designed as fitting for the occasion but were also orchestrated to make the most of the band’s talents, then I have described renditions of music that were superb. What they played was both demanding of the individual sections and challenging to the balance of the collective whole. This is clearly an excellent band.

Then the choir delivered a fitting follow-on as demanding of their voices as the pieces played by the band had demanded of their players. This item consisted of : ‘Ding Dong Merrily on High’, a traditional French carol arranged by Charles Wood and ‘Christmas Carolong’, arranged by their conductor Alan Brierley.

The final item in this section was ‘For Unto Us a Child Is Born’ from Handel’s ‘The Messiah’. The reason for this item is that this, 2005–2006 year is the Choir’s Diamond Jubilee when, on the 17th December 1946 they gave their first Christmas performance of The Messiah. In December 2006 they will do the same.

With the familiarity of the established conductor who knows his audience Alan Brierley, turned round for audience participation in the final carol of the first part of the concert, ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’

When the audience had settled itself, Alan Brierley introduced Hayley. ‘She’s sung in the Carnegie Hall; in the Albert hall; in the Sydney Opera House and now she has come to Huddersfield Town Hall!’ There was the expected laughter. This was when Alan told us of his visit to New Zealand and his discovery there of an identical hall modelled on Huddersfield’s.

Then Hayley came on stage in her rich yellow dress with gold adornments including a magnificent gold waist belt like a girdle adorning a Greek statue to the goddess Diana, to an applause she normally receives when she has just completed a piece.

This was an audience that knew her name and her reputation. For them, she had nothing to prove, ‘welcome, Hayley’. For us, who know her performances so well, what can we say that does not simply repeat what has been said already by different people on different occasions, with the same consistency that Hayley herself delivers in her performances?

She opened with the piece I think we will always associate with Hayley, Pokarekare Ana. Immediately I noticed something different and I found it fascinating. I wished to have been up in the gallery! Writing now, my mind casts back to a comment by Jill, probably somewhere in ‘The World at Her Feet’ when she was invited on stage to ‘make-up’ numbers for a chorus, probably for a film take or curtain line-up. She remarked on how the stage lights were so blinding she hadn’t realised Hayley never saw the audience.

That experience, of course, depends upon where you are on the stage and the particular theatre. The principal player will always be towards the front and have a different perspective. It is another stress factor for the artiste playing one-nighters at different venues. However much adapted to the particular performer, lighting rigs are different from theatre to theatre and what you can see of the audience depends upon both the mix of long and short throw spots and their angle. Hayley mixes concert hall and theatre venues so there will be times, as at Huddersfield, when the auditorium lights are not as dimmed as they would be in a theatre, giving the artiste a clear aspect of the audience.

During her singing you can gain some idea as to how much of the audience’s individual faces Hayley can see and she always seems to play to those visible faces individually, without ignoring the ‘hidden masses’ to which she seems to look almost dreamily, gazing into the Gods, especially in long pauses while the backing plays.

At Huddersfield, the auditorium lights were less dimmed than at Liverpool and one could sense a real personal connection with the whole audience. Perhaps because it is Victorian and in many ways resembles the Music Hall layout, she seemed to respond to the building in the classic Victorian manner, playing to the gallery.

It was another example of Hayley’s adaptability. The way she so easily (seemingly) melds into her surroundings and takes on the whole as a part of herself, projecting herself in harmony with that particular unique audience and its circumstances. Now, there is a suggestion for you Hayley, when looking for new songs why not take a look at the music hall ballads? You are the right age now to sing those songs of love with the right passion.

Then followed the challenging Caccini’s version of ‘Ave Maria’ in which you sensed the whole audience was hanging upon every breath she breathed, following her through the detail of every cadence, totally spellbound. What was most noticeable throughout her whole performance was the way the audience waited to the very last breath, waiting for the silence that proved the last note had finally died, before bursting into solid, universal applause. The ‘Bridal Ballad’, which Hayley originally recorded for Michael Radford’s direction of Shakespeare’s ‘‘The Merchant of Venice’, starring Al Pacino was her next song and she concluded the first part with Carl Orf’s ‘In Trutina’.

At this point, breaking for the interval, I should mention Hayley’s backing musicians for the evening were the Helen Fitzgerald Trio, comprising Al (piano), Fiona (violin) and Helen (cello). I have to confess that when I first heard them as a replacement for Fiona Pears (now back in New Zealand) I had been disappointed. This was not so much a reflection on their prowess as the tameness in comparison with the ‘hi jinks’ of Fiona Pears. To return to ‘normality’ is something of a let down, especially with a recorder solo. It makes one realise how very fortunate we have been to have such an accomplished artiste as Fiona Pears, who can match Hayley in supremacy of her own instrument.

Chatting with Fiona Pears, I think at St James’, she told me that when working on duets together Hayley and she like to challenge each other, in both contrast and harmony, each pushing their own instrument to the limit. I had never really thought of the human voice as an instrument before. The idea of two virtuosi ‘bashing it out between them’ is enchanting.

I had not originally warmed to Fiona when I first encountered her at Derngate because she had cavorted in erratic gyrations around the stage but disciplined ‘to the spot’ I learned to admire her seeming ability to play the violin upside down and behind her back as easily as in front of her, as if she was intent on sawing the violin apart with her bow which always showed signs of extreme stress towards the end of an evening.

Not having to interact with Hayley as a counter act (and in chamber music I am sure they can command an entire evening’s entertainment in their own right) the Helen Fitzgerald Trio were the perfect accompaniment to the songs Hayley had chosen.

The second half started with the Pennine Band playing Prokofieff’s ‘Midnight Sleighride’ from his Lieutenant Kije suite. Then followed ‘Sugar Blues’ by Clarence Williams. Here Pennine Brass gave their cornet soloist his head, only afterwards telling us that up until 2:00pm that after-noon they did not know if he was going to be up to it, he had been in bed for the past three days. If he was still ‘somewhat under the weather’ it certainly did not show. They finished this section with Eric Ball’s ‘The Kingdom Triumphant’.

Then the choir again, opening with a composition by two of the choir’s own sopranos, Madge Parker (words) and Angela Griffiths (music). Angela Griffiths is also their deputy conductor. We were told how their composition had been played on Classic fm and they set themselves and their friends to listen to it at one o’ clock one December after-noon, but never to hear it. When they rang Classic fm to ask how they had missed it, it turned out it was at one o’ clock that morning because it was a lullaby!

Malcolm Hinchcliffe’s arrangement of Este Salter’s ‘While Shepherd Watched’ followed with the audience once more on their feet for ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’

Hayley returned, announcing to an initially slightly perplexed audience that she was entering the competition for the best dressed Christmas Tree prize! The roar of laughter and immediate applause indicated they understood the full length gown of reflective holly green, seemingly decked out with silver stars and topped with a silver, tinsel-like jacket. She didn’t need the tinsel head band supporting the traditional nativity star above her head. She’s Hayley. She is the star. We know that but the humility she displays and the lovely childlike wonderment at the compliments she receives sometimes makes me ask, does she?

Now this is where I go to pieces. At Manchester, I was going to ‘do the honours’ but I met Andrew who seemed to have a full sheaf of notes and especially as he is a much younger man than I, it seemed a good opportunity to encourage the ‘younger’ element. I think he did an excellent job. This time I was determined to pay attention and take notes. I did but trying to decipher my scrawled handwriting while hypnotised by Hayley on stage is not easy. So, Chris, as you were there, please correct me if necessary.

I believe she started with The Prayer and then delivered the Schubert version of the Ave Maria. I well understand why Hayley chooses both in the same concert. The Caccini I admire almost as a set exam piece—it is an opportunity for the singer to show what she can do—but the Schubert is pure joy. Perhaps it is greater familiarity with the latter or perhaps it is Hayley’s rendition.

This is something I have noted elsewhere. With her recordings of Wuthering Heights and one other title which eludes me for the moment, I thought her rendition far better than the original recording artiste’s versions.

In this section came ‘Hine e Hine’ and ‘Amazing Grace’. What can I say of these renditions but they were the ‘standard’ excellence of a Hayley concert… yet there was something more, just as there had been at Shrewsbury. Is it that Hayley needs to fit in home trips more often? Is it that the whole family needs to ‘pop over’ (to save Hayley the travelling hassle) for the odd mid-term or holiday break? Is it just my imagination, or the season? At both Shrewsbury and Huddersfield it seemed there was a little extra magic in the air.

Peter Such


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