Christmas with the National Boys Choir of Australia

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Published: 18th December, 2017

After two weeks of listening to Christmas Muzac at the shopping malls it was refreshing to hear real Christmas music in a live venue by  real people without an American accent. Sorry, had to get that out of the way.

Most people would only hear the National Boys Choir at the Carols by Candlelight at the Myer Music Bowl, but they have a lot more strings to their bow than that, and this concert – at Hamer Hall last Sunday, December 17 – was as good as any to hear it.

In total there were 198 choristers on stage, 40 in the Elementary choir 31 in the Junior Choir and 97 in the Performing Choir. They all performed their parts very well – disciplined, attentive, engaged and, ultimately, professional. It got me thinking about the dedicated effort it takes to get these little angels on to the stage, and how grateful we should be to those who have taken the effort to create, sustain and develop this choir. Because we all benefit in different ways.

Without groups such as this who nurture young singers (and I include schools), larger professional organisations would struggle to find the talent required for some of their productions. For instance, the choir performed Carmina Burana this year with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra; three of the members were selected for the children’s chorus in Opera Australia’s Carmen, while three others took part in that company’s CavalleriaRusticana/Pagliacci. Melbourne Opera also borrowed two of the singers for its production of Lohengrin.

And we mustn’t forget that for 16 years the Qantas Choir consisted of members of the National Boys Choir and Australian Girls Choir, which provided many opportunities and international travel. The Christmas Concert was certainly enjoyable for all present – performers and audience; comprised, I’m sure, of the mums and dads, aunts and uncles, and grandparents, who most likely performed taxi duty during the year.

The stand-out was the choir’s performance of Argentinian Ariel Ramirez’s Misa Criolla (Creole Mass). I’m not aware that this work is often performed in Australia but it lends itself to this sort of group. Written in 1964 it was a product of the significant changes to the Roman Catholic liturgy following the Second Vatican Council, and was one of the first masses not written in Latin.

It combines Spanish text with indigenous instruments and rhythms. The Misa has an unmistakeable South American spirit as it uses traditional folkloric melodies. In this performance we heard instruments including the bombo (a traditional drum with hoops and leather) the charango (an instrument sounding a little like a mandolin), the bamboo flute quena, the guitar, and a variety of percussion instruments. All in all it invoked a wonderful Argentina Creole atmosphere. Adding depth to the 97 members of the Performing Choir was a 40-member Men’s Chorus, comprising mostlyly of former members.

The lead solo part was brilliantly undertaken by Australian tenor David Rogers-Smith in a virtuosic display. It is not an especially easy piece to sing as it often heads into the high voice, requiring great dexterity. Rogers-Smith also excelled later in the programme accompanying the choir in Adolph Adams’ O Holy Night.

Congratulations also extend to the two Artistic Directors, Peter Casey (son of the founder Kevin Casey) for his deft handling of the Missa Criolla, and Philip Carmody, who led most of the remaining program. The Casey family, in particular, can look back with pride at the choir they created in their Mont Albert House way back in 1964.

A final word to the 40 members of the Elementary Choir who opened the performance. You did well and you will continue to improve. Follow the encouraging advice of your leaders, and always look at the conductor.