We're the new Pops Choir

POLISHED: The view across the piano of the Christchurch Pops Choir.
POLISHED: The view across the piano of the Christchurch Pops Choir.

Conductor and musical director Luke Di Somma wastes no time on chat. He launches his choral singers straight into warm-ups and keeps the tempo high as rehearsal continues.

It's the Christchurch Pops Choir regular Monday night practice and Di Somma is working through the old American folk song Shenandoah and The Beatles classic Here Comes the Sun.

About 60 choral singers join by voice type - sopranos, altos, tenors, and baritones - from underneath and overtop, from left and right, high and low. Even at a rehearsal months before their next gig, the Pops Choir doesn't leave much on the table.

BIGN AND PUNCHY: Luke di Somma revs up the Christchurch Pops Choir in rehearsal.
BIGN AND PUNCHY: Luke di Somma revs up the Christchurch Pops Choir in rehearsal.

"That's our core ethos - big and punchy," says Di Somma. "I don't like choirs that sing softly and I'm prepared to sacrifice some things because I like lush and full.

"It's achieving together what you can't achieve on your own," he says. "A soloist is great, but you can't beat 60 individualised voices."

This turns out to be revealing in songs that weren't written for 60 voices, such as Elton John and Bernie Taupin's first hit, Your Song: "My gift is my song, and this one's for you."

ON SONG: Singers audition and must read music.
ON SONG: Singers audition and must read music.

There's enough going on in that tune to give lots of voices something worthwhile to do, and the added complexity is fascinating, even exhilarating, to those without much exposure to classic choral singing.

The Pops Choir does rock and roll - Lady Gaga, Katie Perry, Michael Jackson - as well as jazz, gospel, folk, Broadway musicals, funk.

"We're the only type of choir like this in New Zealand," Di Somma says.

The Pops Choir is a post-earthquake thing, as if the best response to natural disaster is song. Di Somma and many members had gigs lined up before the February 2011 quake but the city went quiet except for the rumble of aftershocks and demolitions. Di Somma and a few friends founded the Pops Choir in June 2011; one goal was to "play a part in rebuilding the heart of the city".

Oonagh Beharrell, , an alto, was to perform in Spamalot at the Isaac Theatre Royal in April 2011 and joined the Pops Choir instead. "It was a much smaller group then, but it's still warm and friendly," the guidance councillor from Canada says. "We needed fun in life."

There can now be up to 80 singers, including Barry Mackenzie, a city council asset manager and bass-baritone. "People want to sing and this was one of the few outlets for people to do that," he says.

Kate Porter, a soprano, is a team leader for an information management company and says the Pops Choir requires some dedication. In addition to the two-hour rehearsals on Mondays, she practises three or four hours a week. Like all members, she was selected after auditions and reads music.

A rehearsal starts early for some newbies and voice coach James Buchanan is presiding over Here Comes the Sun. "What season is it?" he asks. Winter! "What better a time of year to sing this song?" he rouses. "Put some summer into it!"

It's been a long, cold lonely winter
Little darling
It feels like years since it's been here
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say
It's all right

It's not just the Pops Choir that has responded with song. The Christchurch City Choir, which lost longtime music director Brian Law to retirement in December, is being revitalised by new director Andrew Withington.

He wants to double the number of singers from the current 80 by the end of the year. "It's a great opportunity for anyone who can sing and read music to participate in an established symphonic choir," he says.

The City Choir contributed to Mahler's Symphony No. 2 C minor The Resurrection Symphony today - a different proposition to pops. Withington also directs the New Zealand Secondary Schools Choir, which this school holidays is touring Singapore and Malaysia.

The Christchurch Youth Choir was launched in 2012, mostly for singers aged 16 to 26. "It gave people a reason to forget about things for a while and come to rehearsal and sing," choir committee vice- president Max Choi told The Press last year.

Back at pops rehearsal, the 29-year-old Di Somma is conducting Over the Rainbow, Judy Garland's signature song from The Wizard of Oz. He wants three syllables in "chimney" tops, as in "away above the chim-en-ey tops . . .".

"Bassists don't be shy," he instructs. "We're not communists. Have fun when it gets more interesting."

"In rehearsal, I like things loud and wrong," Di Somma says. "Rehearsal is about stuffing it up less and less each week." They'll get it right tomorrow, he promises.

The Press