With its annual Messiah performances over, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Chorus could relax with a program of Christmas songs and carols. This is not to say the performance at Hamer Hall was in any way musically compromised, whether it was centuries old carols or popular American songs.
Guest conductor Bramwell Tovey has demonstrated his showmanship on previous visits and was the perfect host for this program, whether on the podium or at the piano. At various points he played duets with the drummer, “welcomed” latecomers in Barry Humphries’ style, and even once seemed to channel Victor Borges.
The Advent carol Veni, veni, Emmanuel was a sombre opening to the concert but demonstrated the strength and purity of the choir with minimal accompaniment. The basses were strong but could have been more animated; however, a nice oboe obbligato – and a final descant – lifted the piece.
For most of the program the singers were accompanied by a full orchestra with no less than two harps and several chimes. Concertmaster was Dale Barthrop, described by Tovey as “the best concertmaster in the world”. The usually dull backdrop of the Hamer Hall stage was transformed into a starry night, a look which lent itself well to carols and Christmas songs.
There was a good mix of the familiar and the new. Once in Royal David’s City has two tunes and Tovey chose the best, with a sweet soprano solo and a descant with quite thrilling brass. The orchestra was given its turn in the spotlight with the Sleigh Ride by Delius, whose prom concert feel added to the festive atmosphere of the night. So did Holst’s In the Bleak Mid-Winter, featuring instrumental solos that showed individual strengths in the orchestra in addition to its cohesiveness.
Mary’s Boy Child began with Tovey on piano, with a jazz treatment and variations. When the choir finally joined in it had the rhythm of “America” from West Side Story. The choir was joyous and resonant – and a big finish was inevitable, as was enthusiastic applause. A different kind of rhythm – Calypso style – featured in the next The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy.
The orchestra was again on show with music from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, a seasonal favourite. Another must have song in such a concert was Silent Night which began surprisingly with piano and trumpet featuring the MSO’s treasure Geoff Payne, the crystal clear sound balancing the choir’s lilting harmony. Tovey’s recitation of The Night Before Christmas was entertaining but perhaps just a little too long for an audience looking to Jingle Bells, The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire) and the traditional God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. Jingle bells was notable for its syncopation and the drummer David Jones’ provision of the sound of hooves. (This seems a good moment to note that the choir is completely open to jazz and handles it as well as the more conventional rhythms of most carols). Tovey enjoyed at times combining the two as in his version of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.
There were duets between Tovey at the piano and the stellar drummer David Jones, then with the concertmaster, in an effective moment of peacefulness. The choir then donned Christmas hats for Leroy Anderson’s instrumental piece Sleigh Ride, unsubtle but hugely enjoyable music. But notwithstanding all the pyrotechnics we had admired from both choir and orchestra, it was the glorious arrangement of O come all ye faithful that stayed long in the memory. Tovey’s comment that the discount “made him shiver” was entirely justified, as was the final verse in all its strength.
Of course, there were encores and the audience joined in. Guest chorus master Anthony Pasquill joined the performers for a well-earned bow. But this was a night for the choir and orchestra to shine – and they did.