If ever there was a city that celebrated Christmas with glorious music, and with great variety that city would have to be Melbourne! With the inevitable Messiahs tempered by other large works, it can be easy to overlook gems which quietly offer themselves for consideration but are sometimes ignored as being too “different” from the ensemble’s usual fare. One such collection which should not be missed, however, is Noel! Noel!, the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s annual journey, moving from their trademark baroque works into shorter examples of Christmassy-sounding pieces – from traditional carols (so old as to be written by Anonymous) to music of our time. (When was the last time you saw “Harry Potter” on a classical music program?) Here it was specifically represented by My Love Is Always Here by Alexandre Desplat, a gentle piece serving as a contrast to the brave choice of opening items by Palestrina. “Brave” as those 16th century works involved using authentic brass instruments which can be fiendish to play, but on the night provided fine backing for the tight polyphony of the Brandenburg choir.
It was a notable feature of this concert that the dates of the works and even their musical structure were almost irrelevant in creating the palpable enthusiasm that the audience displayed for virtually every work. This was a knowledgeable and appreciative audience nevertheless, which recognised the John Rutter Nativity Carol as readily as Adolphe Adam’s Cantique de Noël (“O Holy Night”) and the cheekier inclusions of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, yet another version of The Twelve Days of Christmas (with new text by Mark Humphries) and a medley including Good King Wenceslas and Hark the Herald Angels Sing). These well-known songs had a fresh sound thanks to their arranger, Alex Palmer, who evidently had an appreciation for the balance of the choir, trained sympathetically by Paul Dyer. This was evident when Palmer stepped up to conduct his own work, All Nearness Pauses, While a Star Can Grow. It was built on the purity of sound that is a characteristic of so many carols, but infused with a modern harmonic sensibility.
Brandenburg concerts often have soloists, some times from within their own ranks or – especially for Noel! Noel! – emerging artists with a particular charm. This year’s guest, young tenor Joel Parnis was well qualified by reason of his good looks, natural charm and a voice trained for music theatre, which nevertheless lent itself very well to Christmas music in its infinite variety.
If I can be allowed a favourite, among such a wealth of choice, it would be the Cantique de Jean Racine by Faure, no doubt known to many in the audience for his luminously beautiful Requiem. A shorter work, the Cantique is a model of an ideal Christmas carol (although it was not written for the purpose), in which melody and rich harmony vie for attention before, all too quickly, the work is over.
In truth, it would be hard to fault any aspect of this concert – but then, why would you want to? Although the orchestra was a pared down version of the ABO, we still had the consistency of Tommie Andersson’s baroque guitar, violins leading the strings in a sweetness of sound – and that special Brandenburg shimmer of percussion from Jess Ciampa that is so characteristic of this fine orchestra. Of course director Paul Dyer has to be credited with the success of choir as well as orchestra which, yet again, has given us a glorious year of music, topped off with a concert that unashamedly shows us how to celebrate Christmas!