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ABO: Noel! Noel!

by Suzanne Yanko

Noël! Noël!, the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s Christmas concert, is always a highlight of the season. Audiences have learned to expect traditional carols mixed with music of the baroque – and there’s always an element of surprise. This year the choice of soloist was the most sensational yet, coming as she does from a different world from that of the classics. Yet this added to the success of the evening. More of that to follow.

The opening Deo Gratias by Ockeghem has the purity of sound of the 15th century, being a canon in 36 parts. The effect achieved by the choir of about 30 voices was one of a series of bells ringing and surrounding the listener, so that one was hardly aware of the two words that comprised the lyrics. The next work O Magnum Mysterium by Clemens non Papa continued in the same vein, with unaccompanied part-singing, beautifully balanced.

The pared-down orchestra played the role of accompaniment with sensitivity and style. It was to have its turn, but not before director Paul Dyer enthused about the “kindness and love” that typified the season and infused the concert. The anonymous work Wie schon … picked up this mood with its chimes to begin, and led to the much-loved Es ist ein Ros entsprungen by Pretorius. In company with the theorbo this was quite a pacy version, with brass and percussion accentuating the Christmassy sound. The focus was again on the choir and some individual voices for the carol Ding dong merrily on high, taken at a brisk pace and unaccompanied, a fine example of the Brandenburgs’ ability to breathe new life into old favourites.

A Buxtehude carol was noticeable for two solos – one Tommie Andersson’s theorbo, the other the unnamed soprano with the bell-like voice who was given a gentle accompaniment by the choir. Soon after came the Monteverdi’s Beatus Vir featuring six soloists and a lovely duet between soprano and alto. (It is a feature of the Brandenburgs that any one of them could be a soloist in any given work!). As so often with this composer there was a hypnotic effect as the words passed between the singers, accompanied by brass.

A soloist of a very different kind followed, the young singer Emma Birdsall, beautiful in a shimmery vintage-inspired gown. The first of three items she would sing (with a dress to match each!) was A Thousand Years by Perri and Hodges arranged by A Palmer. Dyer had introduced her as “an angel with a modern voice”, and she has indeed had some success in the commercial arena. This took nothing away from her performance as the ABO transformed itself into a gentle pop band – and Dyer himself into a cool keyboard player! Birdsall delivered the song with feeling, in a strong lower register that suited it beautifully. It brought to mind the best of Bonnie Raitt and was comparable to Christina Perri’s recording of the song. What did it have to do with Christmas? Simply the kind of emotion that Dyer had promised us earlier – and no one seemed to be complaining!

In the next bracket of four items one was outstanding for its sheer beauty. This was The Ground: Pleni Sunt Caeli by the contemporary Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo. With a minimal although sensitive strings accompaniment the choir delivered the best of harmony in a romantic sounding piece. On a first hearing it came across as beautiful, strong and uplifting. Only the gentle rendition of Away in a Manger could possibly be worthy to follow it.

The night then raced to a conclusion with two more appearances by Birdsall, firstly to sing the Bacharach standard This Guy’s In Love With You and finally Adolphe Adam’s Oh Holy Night. Although very different both works seemed made for her generous, deep yet beautiful voice and her appearance; she would not be out of place behind the microphone in a cool jazz club or radio hall of the 30s.

Several well-known carols completed an almost perfect night for the singers and musicians of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, or more particularly for their audience. My only regret is that we have another year to wait for the next Noel! concert, although taking home a new Noel! CD was some consolation perhaps!

The picture was taken by Steven Godbee at the first Melbourne concert.


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