Even the tuning sounded festive at the Brandenburg’s Noel! Noel! concert, thanks to the addition of brass instruments to a smaller than usual ensemble. The places on stage were taken up by the singers. Unusually, the audience was greeted by a voice-over rather than by the ABO’s ebullient director Paul Dyer, but it was not long before the choir processed in, singing unaccompanied the advent carol Wachet Auf. Dyer arrived to conduct and a resonant start was given to the concert.
The first item was succeeded by the chimes, one of an array of percussion instruments handled with style as always by Brian Nixon. (Percussion is too often associated with noise but throughout this concert, Nixon delighted with his choice of instruments played at exactly the right volume, generally subtle). That led to the inevitable work by “Anonymous”, Sonata a 9. With all the bells and whistles it was a good opening for the orchestra, which made a strong start (allowing for the always temperamental period brass instruments which, it must be said, did improve on the night).
Enter stage right a brightly dressed young soloist, the splashes of green and red on her dress lending a very festive air to this Christmas concert. Madison Nonoa, 23, lent her pure and strong voice to the opening verse of Once in Royal David’s City and was easily at home with the choir in harmony and descant. Oddly, Paul Dyer chose the moment after this work to formally welcome the audience (and promote a turkey recipe?) before he asked one of the orchestra to talk about his new instrument. This led naturally to the well-known Vivaldi concerto for two trumpets in C major, the kind of music an audience expects from the Brandenburgs. It was played with their usual aplomb, with the two concertmasters and theorbist Tommie Anderssohn all contributing a vivid edge to the performance.
The annual Noel! Noel! concert is always a lovely balance of vocal and orchestral music, traditional, with something more modern. Vavilov’s Ave Maria, (arranged by A. Palmer) was a showcase for the women of the choir as they hit the high slow notes of the work that was previously attributed to Caccini, a notion dismissed summarily in the program notes! The singers hit the high notes with confidence and purity, as did soloist Nonoa, who offered creamy notes in the descending scale and true pitching for the high intervals in this piece. Soft percussion worked well as the accompaniment.
The percussion also worked well with the brass to deliver a rendition of the favourite carol, Oh little town of Bethlehem. The choir was waiting for its next two contrasting pieces: Ola Gjeilo’s The Spheres from Sunrise Mass and the traditional Coventry Carol. While the first piece was a conventional SATB arrangement its harmony was strange, if beautiful … from the Kyrie’s almost discordant harmony to the long unison note that ended the piece.
The very familiar work, the Coventry Carol, had much to recommend it. The welcome return of Nonoa in a gorgeous black evening dress with a shimmering top was not just about looks as her soaring descant sent shivers down the spine. It was the more noticeable for contrasting with the male voices of the choir, grounded by the brass. More contrasts came with the next work, by the 16th century Spanish composer Luys de Narvaez. Anderson’s always reliable theorbo substituted for the original vihuela and blended well with the percussion, in this case a small xylophone. A xylophone teamed with a sackbut (and the two lead violins) for an amusing rendition of God rest ye, merry gentlemen, before Rittler’s Ciaccona a 7. Led at first by a delicate cello, this work saw Paul Dyer literally draw the viola player Monique O’Dea to the front of the stage to play the gentle melody. Joined by the violins, then the brass, this made a charming instrumental piece, with the rhythm reinforced at last by the tambourine.
There were a number of traditional carols – and some “guest” appearances by worthy members of the choir as the program neared its end, with an unexpected highlight The Luckiest by Ben Folds and, less controversially, Cantique de Noel by Adolphe Adam (the composer of Giselle). The soloist had changed yet again, this time into a simple white long dress. Sung in French, this was so enchanting one could hardly imagine anything more so. But Nonoa had one more stunning work: Silent Night, accompanied by the theorbo with the second verse in a Maori language with delicate hand movements.
Having given such a beautiful performance themselves, members of the choir and orchestra seemed transfixed by Nonoa’s rendition of this timeless carol, reinvented for the night. A resounding Oh Come, All Ye Faithful by the choir and then audience further reinforced the mood of mutual respect and congratulations. Yet another concert to treasure from the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, its director, the choir … and a fine young soloist in Madison Nonoa.