Even among the feast of music that Christmas serves up, the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic choir is always a must on the list. The dilemma is whether to attend Messiah or one of the Carols at Saint Paul’s concerts … and this year I resolved that by going to both, the latter in the company of eight friends or family!
As I anticipated, I found a choir that sings joyously without compromising the most important elements of precision, diction and good timing. This is in large measure due to the choir’s musical director and conductor Andrew Wailes with his knack of bringing out the best in contrasting works, satisfying tradition while allowing introducing a fresh sound to the choir in each.
One should not ignore the importance of the orchestra, which is an integral part of the RMP. The Messiah’s opening Sinfonia set the tone for the evening, with its emphatic chords and dotted notes before a challenging increase in tempo. The tenor Andrew Goodwin had a pleasant and resonant voice in the first recitative, “Comfort you” and enthusiastic approach to the aria ‘Every valley” (although this led him to be a little ahead of the orchestra at times). There was no such issue with the chorus, which relished “And the glory of The Lord”. All parts had a presence but the sopranos were notable for their ringing tone.
The bass Peter Coleman-Wright’s “Shake” aria made a fine contrast to the lightness of the chorus “And he shall purify”, the first of many such contrasts in the work. Mezzo Fiona Campbell’s lovely warm tone, combined with a pleasing vibrato, gave the choir the lead in approaching “O thou that tellest”, with the singers later tackling “For unto us” and other choruses with confidence.
Greta Bradman has had a number of successes this year and both looked the part and sang beautifully. “Rejoice” was the perfect introduction to her voice and the succession of arias she would sing divinely. (It should be said that the women soloists were the stars of the show, incidentally dressed in vibrant Christmas colours!).
This is not to diminish the importance of the choir, which sang with the power that one expects from a good Messiah. The Hallelujah chorus is one of many but is often used to judge the whole performance. If so, this was a great one, as both choir and orchestra, (supplement by the Magnificent Town Hall organ) gave their all to this powerful and emotional part of the oratorio.
There was much to praise in almost every part of this performance but suffice it to say that the final Amen rounded it off beautifully, the sopranos bell-like to the very last high note, as Wailes drew a great swell of sound from singers and players alike.
Within the week, your reviewer was again in the company of the Royal Philharmonic choir, for a less formal concert despite the imposing setting of St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral. The instruments were mainly brass with piano, organ, harp and percussion (and solo flute) the other main elements in the pleasing accompaniment.
After a short fanfare there was a welcome from Andrew Wailes the conductor who introduced the three choirs: the Australian Children’s Choir, Melbourne University Choral Society and of course the RMP. Making a fine sound when combined, each choir also had its strengths, which allowed for a varied and balanced program. Having a number of well-known carols for the audience to join in is always a popular element of this concert.
So too are the lesser known carols, chosen for their appeal in terms of melody and harmony. Michal Lorenc, Z Randall Stroope and Australian Nicholas Buc are just some of the lesser-known composers whose works were appreciated by the capacity audience. Keeping a partisan point of view, among the readings Julie Houghton’s Australian Christmas was particularly evocative and we could have heard more of the William James carols.
Soloists, both in the choir and orchestra, deserved their places, even when appearing on the same program as star Yvonne Kenny, still in beautiful voice. With nearly 40 items on the program, there was something to admire in every one. I will simply conclude that the RMP and Andrew Wailes demonstrated yet again their importance to this city as leaders in choral music for 162 years.
After hearing their performances, at last it seemed a lot like Christmas.