RMP Carols at the Cathedral

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Published: 19th December, 2017

Some Christmas concerts are driven by major orchestras bringing their choirs to the forefront, and surprising audiences other than their series subscribers, the only ones to know such choirs even exist.

The Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Choir turns this convention on its head by giving a lot of prominence to its orchestra and of course supplementing the number of its own singers needed for maximum effect, bringing well loved carols to an audience which is also encouraged to sing some carols ( by invitation). It’s a formula with great appeal, judging from the packed-out concerts over the one weekend in December that hosts the RMP Carols at St Paul’s Cathedral each year.

As if the cast of not quite thousands were not enough to thrill a packed cathedral, conductor and director of the Choir, Andrew Wailes chooses the full ensemble with great care. Regular readers Roland Rocchiccioli and Julie Houghton join accompanists Adam Cook, piano, and David Macfarlane, organ, while the The Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Choir and Melbourne University Choral Society are joined by the Australian Children’s Choir. All bear witness to Wailes’ mastery of choral direction, yet elements like diction, pitch, harmony and balance are beautifully unforced whatever the carol – and inspire confidence for the audience’s participation in the traditional carols, so enjoyable to sing.

While not quite an “orchestra” RMP Brass and Percussion complement the keyboards and bind the whole sound together, with trumpets, drums and other inevitably Christmassy sounding Instruments heard to greatest advantage in the fanfares. Special mention must also be made of another prominent soloist, harpist Jacinta Dennett whose repertoire included at least one effect new to me, involving articulating the melody in the right hand while the left played a series of arpeggios as accompaniment.

The classical guitarist Ziggy Johnston, a fine musician in his own right, mainly had the task of accompanying the soloist Max Riebl, the uncontested star of this year’s concert. His many appearances on the night included leading the choirs in Frisina’s Magnificat, to (nearer the end) the well-loved Stille Nacht and soon after, the final triumph of Adolphe Adams’ O Holy Night, which ended his, well, stellar contribution to this magnificent concert. Riebl’s s voice is a counter tenor, still it seems a relatively unfamiliar concept outside of medieval masses and the like. But there was universal acceptance of the sound once the “shock of the new” subsided. Reibl’s voice was strong and clear, with confidence in the highest of notes and great warmth throughout.

(Those in the know whispered that Max Riebl was the recent winner of this year’s Herald Sun Aria, just one of the arenas in which the young singer is making his name.)

But there was so much more to admire. First, following the winning formula of previous years, and after an opening fanfare, the audience was invited to sing Once in Royal David City, the children’s choir arriving in procession to swell the sound. As well as contributing a fresh treble sound, the ACC was to show a pleasing familiarity with the works of John Rutter as well as carols both old and new. Many more were to follow.

Carols services often tread a difficult path between traditionalists and those who scorn what can seem outdated or irrelevant generally because of the northern hemisphere orientation. So it is pleasing that the RMP Includes such contrasting Australian contributions as Calvin Bowman’s Noel and the William James Christmas carols (in this case The North Wind). The choice of material is interesting enough for its variety, but of greater importance is the quality of sound that Wailes unfailingly draws from his choirs, from the bell-like sopranos to the solid bass line in support of the whole group.

There is so much more that could be written, but I will end – as the concert did – with the “triple treat” that brought it to a close: Beethoven’s Fanfare of the Angels led the entire cathedral into a rousing performance of Hark the Herald Angels Sing, and then as we were leaving the cathedral its pipe organ thundered out a Toccato by Widor, the walls seeming to shake with the sound.

My only regret is having to wait a year to hear such a concert again. I have heard many wonderful concerts this year, including several Christmas concerts reviewed in the past week. But I have to to congratulate Andrew and musicians all, because now it’s beginning to sound a lot like Christmas.