RMP: Carols in the Cathedral

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Published: 19th December, 2018

As Christmas stars and candles light up the world, every year there are scores of local stars shining in a highly popular festive event. The Royal Melbourne Philharmonic’s traditional celebration of Christmas themes, through readings and songs from many centuries, is a most colourful and spectacular occasion in the magnificent St Paul’s Cathedral. Three performances over the weekend surely had it all – the strength of massed adult choirs, the freshness and purity of the voices of the Australian Children’s Choir, solo singing from a future superstar, serious entertainment from highly accomplished instrumentalists, sacred hymns from wide European traditions, Australian compositions, lighter contemporary songs and readings, and harp, organ and bagpipes.

The dramatic, reverential entrance carol paid tribute to the one hundred year traditional order of the renowned King’s College, Cambridge service. “Once In Royal David’s City” is introduced by unaccompanied unison voices of the Australian Children’s Choir members processing from the Cathedral entrance, lighting the way with candles, then joining the main stage with the adult choirs and orchestra, the song building with enthusiastic audience participation. Subsequently, the varied structure of the traditional Audience Carols engaged the congregation with alternating verses at times, sometimes with all female voices, sometimes with adults, sometimes with children, making these truly artistic and unique concert performances, not just asking for the more common “everybody join in” approach. Final choruses were heartfelt and powerful as they built with full brass, percussion and ceiling high soprano descants.

The professional delivery of the readers, Roland Rocchiccioli and Julie Houghton added both authority and spirited expression in the Gospel excerpts, and the addition of two non-secular “reflections” were modern and relevant to the Australian spirit, both past and present. These were accompanied sensitively with solo harp or piano. The texts of the chosen readings bridged the theme of adjoining hymns, with one contemporary Australian reading being breezy and sunny, leading into “An Australian Christmas” by Daniel Brinsmead (commissioned for this RMP event) and “Christmas Day” by William James. “As Dew In April”, a text set to music by Australian composer Helen Gifford presented the Children’s Choir with some difficult unison lines which were confidently and beautifully performed with just harp accompaniment. In their contemporary repertoire, “Peace Is Born On Earth” (Sally De Ford), and “Nativity Carol” (Spevacek), the children demonstrated their glorious tonal blend, clearest diction and fine balance in the part-singing of traditional, classical or poetic texts. In “Tu scendi dale stelle” (“From Starry Skies” – Italian trad.), the children’s joy in singing an elegant tarantella with dance-like rhythms and lower parts echoing bagpipe drones was delightful to watch.

So well-schooled and attentive, these young voices blended charmingly with the adult women in De Ford’s composition “On a Still and Starry Night”. With just piano and occasional wind chimes and the flute accompaniment of soloist Cassandra Slater, the male voices also beautifully underscored the setting, showing either subtle presence or strength when needed. This was a most interesting and engaging composition.

The combined adult choirs – RMP, Melbourne University Choral Society and Box Hill Chorale – filled the Cathedral vaults with nearly 200 voices, delivering a variety of solemn traditional texts across the centuries, most with refreshing contemporary settings and with added flute, harp or piano (accompanists Stefan Cassomenos and Adam Cook). In both “En Natus Est Emmanuel(set by M. Armstrong) and “There is Faint Music” (D. Forrest) the voices were confident and expressive, with the male voices in particular showing colour and firm pitch. “In The Bleak Midwinter” by Gustav Holst was arranged by Roger Emerson as a more modern a cappella work, allowing gentle layered harmonies and “unresolved” sustained chords in cadences, adding new choral textures into this program. Excellent diction came from the combined choirs in William James’ golden gem “The Silver Stars Are In The Sky”, and “A Vaughan Williams Christmas” was a contrasting buoyant, spectacular and colourful medley of three English folk/hymn tunes.

And still there was more. Bagpipes. Three popular carols by pipes and drums excited us all with their ceremonial presence – this was an unexpected awakening for sleeping babes on a Silent Night! Following more vocal works, harpist Jacinta Dennett restored calm and order with “Quietude”, a solo by Carlos Salzedo.

The item which shone very brightly was the performance by emerging international star, tenor Boyd Owen. Singing Gounod’s “Ave Maria (accompanied by harp solo) and Franck’s “Panis Angelicus(accompanied by organ and harp), then in French, “Cantique de Noel”, (“O Holy Night”,) Boyd endeared himself to us with his gorgeous tone, lyricism, dynamics and expressively shaped phrases, delivering the text with honesty and heart. Seriously excellent.

As artistic director and conductor of all these choral groups, Andrew Wailes is a highly experienced Master of all Ceremonies, dedicated to the performance of major choral works. His unfailing energy, musical skills and enthusiasm today produced another grand musical program in a special venue. The audience certainly appreciated the intelligently written and colourful program, and the warm delight of being a part of such varied and creative Christmas music.

The final massed choir item was the contemporary “God Bless Us Everyone”, which built with fervour and increased power from the brass and timpani into an almost operatic march. The Children led the procession with candles into the night, with the closing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” while the audience stayed on to be thrilled by organist David McFarlane’s recessional postlude, Widor’s “Toccata”.

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Julie McErlain reviewed RMP – Carols In The Cathedral on Sat 15th Dec, in St Paul’s Cathedral.