In fine festival voice

The growing popularity of a cappella choirs could be attributed to movies such as Pitch Perfect, to television show, The Sing Off and even to TVNZ’s recently screened, The Naked Choir, but Janene Houghton told HELEN PERRY that Auckland’s Stellar Singers can thank their conductor and mentor, Brian Lee not only for raising the profile of a cappella singing but for the choir organising Auckland’s upcoming VoCo Festival.

VoCo – Vocal Community – Festival will not only hit the high notes, but the many and varied notes of gospel, folk, jazz, barbershop and even choral singing when it comes to the stage in Auckland this month.

And, among the 20 musical groups, and almost 800 performers, will be festival organiser, the Stellar Singers led by Brian Lee whose vision it was to host the event.

What’s more, tucked amongst The Stellar Singers will be former Whitford local, second alto, Janene Houghton who is on the event committee and has been a member of the choir for the past three years.

“We can put this whole festival down to one person with a massive musical vision and that’s our musical director Brian Lee,” Janene says. “He came to New Zealand 23 years ago with limited English and found singing in a choir not only helped him learn the language but to connect with people.

“His love of voice, wide involvement in music generally and a cappella singing has shown him how a festival like this can benefit the whole community. His idea of bringing together a wide range of genres and contemporary groups on one platform, and in a professional manner, has inspired us all.”

For Janene, Brian’s enthusiasm has paid personal dividends. “Music has been a part of my life since childhood,” she explains. “My parents Henry and Norma Smith were founding members of the former Assemblies of God church, Faith Tabernacle in Pakuranga and, although I never had formal music lessons I learnt to play the piano by ear and was also the church pianist.”

“During my last year at high school, and then at uni, I was part of a small singing group, Chrysallis, but it wasn’t until my husband, David and I moved to Hong Kong that I joined a choir.”

Janene Houghton in tune with VoCo Festival. Photos supplied

With David’s job as a Cathay Pacific pilot taking the Houghton’s to live in Hong Kong where their three daughters were born, it wasn’t long before Janene discovered the American Women’s Association Choir.

It was a great group for helping ex-Pats to connect but it also introduced me to the joys of being part of a choir.”

In 2003, David was posted back to New Zealand and the couple bought a five-acre lifestyle block in Whitford. “I’m a city girl at heart but David came from a farming background; the Whitford property suited us both and it was a wonderful place for our girls to grow up.
Back in New Zealand, Janene was again keen to reconnect with a choir so she joined the Pakuranga Choral Society.

“The members were great and certainly gave me renewed confidence but then, when the King’s Singers were touring New Zealand, I attended one of the group’s master classes focused on a cappella singing and working with the Stellar Singers.

“I just loved the diversity of age groups – 17 to 60 plus – the contemporary feel and the range of music styles. I decided to audition and, amazingly, I made it through although, initially, it was a huge challenge to sing without music accompaniment. There’s nowhere to hide if you make a mistake and I felt quite exposed!

“But that’s where Brian’s encouragement and direction was so wonderful. He urged us not to worry about mistakes; that we would adjust. He has also kept us interested, even excited by providing a funky mix of modern a cappella music which has been inspired by the likes of The Real Group (from Sweden and here for the festival), The Idea of North, The Swingle Singers, Pentatonix and The King’s Singers.”

However, while the Stellar Singers has had the opportunity to take part in many fun events – such as backing American singer/song writer, Josh Groban at the Vector Arena – twice – Janene says she also loves gigs held in small venues, country locations and communities where the choir just sings for the love of it.

“Basically, we all just love to sing – together. It brings us a great deal of joy.”

Although she says she is not ‘solo material’ Janene has appreciated being exposed to the works of many local composers – “I especially enjoy the works of David Hamilton who often includes parts for altos; that’s why I love his compositions,” she laughs.

With rehearsals every Monday night at Baradene College, her youngest daughter at Auckland University, and the older daughters (twins) now working and living in the city, the family’s move to Remuera two years ago has worked out well for everyone including Janene who is an audiologist at Soundskills in Greenlane.

“Being closer to town has certainly been an advantage while helping to co-ordinate the VoCo Festival,” she says. “Now it’s just down to the finishing touches ensuring everything is correlated and working harmoniously and that the audience hears some really diverse and enjoyable singing – all unaccompanied, of course!”

It’s a sing thing… 

When the stars come out in Auckland, it’ll be time for some of the finest singers to shine. In addition to the Stellar Singers, a wide range of vocal groups will perform, including the City of Sails Chorus, Auckland Chamber Choir, Auckland Youth Choir and The Real Group from Sweden.

Culminating in two concerts – VoCo Concert, September 23, Victory Convention Centre, Freemans Bay, and The Real Group Concert, September 24, Bruce Mason Centre, Takapuna – the festival also features a number of other workshops and events. For a full schedule, including show times, visit