Andrew Wailes is on to a winning formula for his popular service of carols at the Cathedral featuring a cast of … well, hundreds, especially when you consider audience participation. The central choir is the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic and the orchestra is essentially brass and percussion, a harp and, at times, piano and organ.
The are several aspects of the program that are particularly popular with audiences. One is hearing themselves sing – no less than eight times during the night, with some of the best tunes. Another is the sense of theatre with the processions at the beginning of each part of the program. The choice of music is of course central to the success of the Carols, and only a disaffected music lover could complain about the mixture of old and new, and arrangements that make the most of the voices and instruments. Take, for example, the opening; Once In Royal David’s City. It works well to introduce all choirs, beginning as it does with unaccompanied sopranos as the children’s choir in green robes process to their places. In the second verse the organ joins in, the third has brass instruments playing, and finally there is a beautiful descant.
The first of the Bible readings (Luke tells of the birth of Jesus) leads naturally into the children’s choir’s rendition of Venite Adoremus by Linda Steen Spevacek. The young singers were well trained, articulate in clarity and with good resonance. These qualities were also in evidence in the first soloist, Suzanne Shakespeare, whose first carol, The Holy Child, had words by Michael Leunig to music by Christopher Willock. Accompanied by the harp, this was gentle and pleasing music, soon followed by the children with Christmas Lullaby by John Rutter.
The adult choirs (the second of them the Melbourne University Choral Society) turned their attention to Russian music, specifically Rachmaninov’s Rejoice, O Virgin. Under Wailes’ direction they found the roundness of vowels and and warm tone so necessary for this type of music. Wailes quite rightly went for the big crescendo and satisfying finish with one very deep voice particularly audible.
Shepherds dominated the next part of the proceedings with two opportunities for the keen audience to join in. Then it was time for perhaps the biggest surprise of the evening. This was the grand old standard, The Holy City, otherwise simply known as Jerusalem. The ”surprise” was courtesy of tenor Henry Choo, exhibiting a voice of warmth and sheer power, easily comparable to any singer who has made this song his own. (I admit I was nervous about some of the killer high notes that confront the singer towards the end of this song but Choo sailed through, as he was to do with all his solos on the night. My guest could hardly wait to hiss sotto voce, “I will go to anything he’s in!”, a sentiment she reiterated many times over and later shared on FaceBook, the ultimate compliment?)
Of course this was not the only highlight of the performance – the children’s choir sang In Dulci Jubilo as if they were in fact the angels featured in so many carols, pianist Stefan Cassomenos joined with percussion to set the place alight with a traditional Nigerian carol, and Julie Houghton gave an evocative and welcome introduction to the often-ignored Australian Christmas carols by W.G. James, before we all sang The North Wind and recalled the Christmases of our childhood. And that was just the first half of the concert!
After interval the second half of the program was introduced by a stirring procession with bagpipes and drum. We would hear Bach, Rutter, and more, with choirs, instrumentalists and soloists building on their strengths. Choo delighted with the traditional O Holy Night by Adam, Cassomenos gave us a rollicking accompaniment to We Three Kings, harpist Jacinta Dennett contributed a lovely, subtle dimension to many carols while the brass players thrilled with their insistent sound. Through it all, Wailes was a commanding secure presence on the rostrum, steering the varied program through centuries of music and persuading the audience to be part of it all, right through to the last note of Hark the Herald Angels Sing.
The last item however was left to organist David McFarlane with a resounding rendition of a toccata by Widor. Its power drew attention to the great venue for this concert: the historic St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral. But the night had been dominated by singers: wonderful soloists, of course, and a very fine orchestra, but primarily Melbourne’s great choir, the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic. Every year their celebrated conductor, Andrew Wailes, promises us a brilliant Carols Concert – and every year he delivers!