For most of us, the lead-up to Christmas is filled with planning celebrations, doing Christmas shopping and looking forward to some rest and relaxation after the big day. But for Melbourne conductor Andrew Wailes, November, December and January are his busiest times of the year. And of course we don’t mean for shopping!
Christmas without carols and other seasonal music just wouldn’t be the same, and rehearsals and performances become Wailes’ focus, as he prepares the Australian Children’s Choir, the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic and Melbourne University Choral Society for concerts that are the “big finish” in an always-busy year.
Growing up in Melbourne, sacred music was a big part of young Wailes’ life, as a chorister in the Anglican Church and the Royal School of Church Music choirs. There was a brief preoccupation with political science and law at Monash University, before music became the passion that led him to major choirs and later on, Opera Australia.
He is passionate about the important of Christmas music to society at large. “Beautiful carols and Handel’s Messiah inspire and uplift us, and are a musical reminder of the Christian message and all that Christmas stands for,” Wailes says.
One of the big events of the year for Wailes’ Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra, of which he is the youngest conductor in more than 150 years, is the RMP’s annual performance of Handel’s Messiah. This year will be the 237th performance, making the RMP the world-record holder for an unbroken sequence of performances of Handel’s immortal work.
“There’s something very special when you sense the audience rise behind you during the famous ‘Hallelujah Chorus’, or hear them bellow out their favourite carols at Carols in the Cathedral,” says the conductor. “You know you have touched them in some small way and made their lives richer for a few hours—it’s always nice to feel that you are a part of their Christmas experience,’ he says.
Wailes is famous for squeezing all his effort into the very few hours he has between Christmas rehearsals and performances. How does he get by?
“It is a very busy time with a reliance on strong black coffee and not much sleep, but it’s always lovely to help people celebrate such an important time of year by providing a little musical cheer,” Wailes explains.
After Christmas Day, there’s a brief (and exotic!) break. While he is usually found at the Boxing Day test at the MCG, this year Wailes flies out to Dubai for a camel safari and Bedouin cooking classes. Then it’s two months performing and travelling in Europe. Back to normal, in fact.
Editor’s note: Regular reviewer Julie Houghton has had a long professional association with Andrew Wailes and the RMP. Andrew officiated at the official launch of Classic Melbourne two years ago, our reviewers have enjoyed and written favourably about the choir, and we are more than happy to present this profile.