Noel! Noel! The exclamation marks are there for a reason: the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and Choir relish their annual performances of Christmas music and want audiences to share that enthusiasm. Paul Dyer might be soberly suited, with choir and orchestra in black, but there was an air of celebration from the percussion’s first delicately shimmering chimes as he spoke of the contribution of other cultures to Christmas music. On this night, Ukraine would be in the spotlight.
First, though, came Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla’s Deus in adiutorium, its brisk festive declamatory sound so “right” for the occasion that you might reasonably think that Christmas began in the 16th century! Three centuries later Vaughan Williams’ Come Down, O love Divine (arr. C Forshaw) represented a change of pace and, in this performance, lent itself beautifully to the voice, then to Christina Leonard’s saxophone as the central accompaniment. The choir showed the timeless charm of four-part harmony, matched with some creative percussion.
An instrumental interlude came with the traditional Divisions on Ancient Carols Played on the Cornetto with Basso Continuo, arranged by the performer Matthew Manchester whose prowess on the cornetto is well known to Brandenburg audiences. The bass continuo was joined by tambourine and guitar, another innovation that seemed entirely in keeping with the work. More controversial, perhaps, was to substitute the saxophone for the oboe in Bach’s Concerto for Violin and Oboe d’amore in c minor BWV 1060. This gave the piece a more brassy Christmas sound and at times overshadowed the plangent violin played by Ben Dolman. Judging from the (sometimes ill-timed) applause, it evidently appealed to the audience.
Guest for the evening Larissa Kovalchuk added a splash of colour to the stage in traditional Ukrainian costume. There was keen interest in her instrument: the bandura, a combination of zither and lute, played with dexterity in the traditional Ukrainian Duma & Kozak March. A further surprise came as the performer revealed a strong and beautiful mezzo voice in the Ave Maria most often attributed to Caccini.
Continuing the spirit of turning the familiar on its head, Samuel Barber’s moving Adagio for Strings here was presented as an Agnus Dei performed by the choir. It required all the subtlety of Paul Dyer’s conducting for the audience to accept this well-known instrumental piece in such a different setting, but the music proved perfect for the final “Dona nobis pacem”. Like the orchestra, the choir was relatively small but each performer was worthy of a place on the stage.
The orchestra then it turned its hands to Ukrainian music and after a subdued start delivered very accomplished string playing in the modern sound of this traditional Ukrainian song. There followed another big surprise: the famous aria from La Wally performed by women from the choir, accompanied by cornetto and drum then strings. It lent an ethereal sound to what is generally regarded as sensuous music, although the cornetto gave the piece a declamatory ending.
Silent night was sung in three languages with the simple beauty that it deserves. Only then did Dyer allow his rather wicked sense of humour to be shown as he sat at the harpsichord and sang a gentle duet with one of the choir members: his own arrangement of Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas. There are critics who will be shocked, but it was further proof that the Brandenburgs are about enjoyable Christmas music of widely divergent origins and sounds.
The hardest part would be choosing a piece to follow and appropriately Dyer settled on the great Christmas hymn, Oh come all ye faithful. It was music to sing with gusto and having the audience join in one verse as an encore eloquently made the point that this was music for the season to be loved and shared.
Suzanne Yanko reviewed a performance at the Melbourne Recital Centre on December 6. The picture of Larissa Kovalchuk and Paul Dyer was taken at Robert Blackwood Hall the following day.