Classical crossover singer Rebecca Nelson told a rapt Cambridge audience how the town holds a special place in her heart for several reasons.
Rebecca’s performance last week was one of three shows lined up to entertain residents and soon-to-be residents of Ryman Healthcare’s Patrick Hogan village in Cambridge, Hilda Ross village down the road in Hamilton and James Wattie village in Havelock North.
It is her special blend of wartime, classical and popular songs and show tunes that makes Rebecca at home either at the Cambridge Town Hall or performing at the 100th anniversary commemorations of the liberation of Le Quesnoy, Cambridge’s sister town in France.
“It’s an amazing story,” she says, describing the Kiwi soldiers’ brave campaign to wrest the town back from the Germans who had held it throughout most of WW1.
“When I was over in Le Quesnoy I worked with the Cambridge Brass Band who had flown over for the 100th commemoration and helped to bless the New Zealand museum built over there.
“And I worked with them again in Cambridge, this time at a concert at the Town Hall.”
This was where she discovered another special connection.
“There’s a beautiful man, Simon Brew, that runs the Hall who was the musical director of the Air Force Band and I have worked with him a number of times so I’m really looking forward to catching up with Simon again.”
And now, her longstanding relationship with Ryman Healthcare has brought her to Cambridge again, with the new Patrick Hogan village on Cambridge Road filling up with residents - and future Rebecca fans!
Rebecca performs for her audience at the beautiful Cambridge Town Hall.
Describing her connection to Ryman, she says: “It feels like coming home and performing for friends and family.”
She says it is always an honour to hear the stories that residents often share with her after a particular song resonates with them.
An amazing reaction came from a gentleman in Wellington who had had a stroke many years earlier which had affected his ability to speak for a long time.
“As soon as the music began he started singing and his wife got such a huge shock,” Rebecca says.
“I had seen him enjoying the show and thought how much he was loving it but it wasn’t until his wife came up afterwards to talk to me that I realized how amazing it was.
“She said ‘thank you so much, he came out of his shell for an hour’. I just thought ‘oh my goodness!’
“When you hear stories like that it really does pull on your heart strings and the emotions.”
Rebecca’s connection to Ryman Healthcare came about when the village manager of Ernest Rutherford village heard her singing on the streets of Nelson.
Many opportunities have since arisen from her busking performances, including joining Irish band The Priests on tour, performing for the All Blacks before a big match, and being recruited as the Royal New Zealand Navy Band’s official singer when the musical director spotted her performing in Devonport.
Residents and soon-to-be residents from James Wattie (above) and Hilda Ross (below) delight in Rebecca's songs and stories.
Being Able Musician Rebecca Nelson with RNZN led to her inclusion in several big ANZAC commemorations in Gallipoli in 2015 where she sang for both the then Prince Charles and Prince Harry.
She later secured Charles’ royal stamp of approval on her album Reverence, which was made with Ryman’s backing, with the sales proceeds going to her charity Te Kiwi Māia, or the Courageous Kiwi Charitable Trust.
Reverence was recorded in 2019 using the music of the Band of the Welsh Guards and features vocals from artists ranging from Moses McKay to the RNZN Māori Culture Group on songs such as Imagine, Hallelujah, White Cliffs and We’ll Meet Again.
Once again, seizing the opportunity, she managed to present Prince Charles with one of the first copies to be released when he toured New Zealand the same week as the album’s launch.
The charity has been going ‘really well’ ever since, she says.
“We have started running programmes to look after first responders suffering burnout or stress and we have helped 32 people now with amazing results.”
Now with a recent promotion to Lieutenant as another feather added to her cap, Rebecca hopes 2024 could be another royal-tinged year, with Charles’s return to New Zealand now as King, set to be in October, health permitting.
“I’ve just written him a letter and I have blocked out that entire week in my diary!” she laughs.
“I have seen him twice in New Zealand, once at his house at Highgrove and twice at commemorations so I think I have a strong case.”