“A Christmas Fanfare” is the first Christmas concert presented by the Melbourne Bach Choir, well known for their Easter performances of the Passions of J. S. Bach, which has now extended into the community with the formation of a chamber choir that joined the larger choral forces tonight. Conductor Rick Prakhoff welcomed us cordially, also introducing each work during the concert with information complementary to program notes that contained most appreciated texts and translations. Sadly omitted were the names of players in the brass quintet, who added great splendour for this event in all too few works, and, with organ master Dr Calvin Bowman, made very special guest appearances. St Andrew’s Anglican Church is a beautifully contemporary building with very fine stained windows, a magnificent organ and modern art re-imagining past traditions.
Opening with a most calm, reverential and calming Christmas lullaby, J.S. Bach’s “O Little One Sweet”, a very full resonance and echo came from the well-blended choristers, performing in a high vaulted sanctuary, which has much glorious echo and sonority, but can cause some loss of clarity in diction and forward pulse in the a capella works. A further tribute to Bach followed with the well-known Christmas text “Vom Himmel hoch da komm’ ich her” (From heaven above to earth I come), which the choir began with a sense of gentle celebration before building next in Praetorius’ “Psallite, unigenito” (Sing your Psalms to Christ). Being aware of the rich acoustics, Prakhoff led the ninety-voice choir in a stately and respectful tempo carefully spacing verses for more textural clarity.
Fanfares came from an uplifting brass quintet, who raised the chorister’s pitch and energy in the stimulating and joyful five-part Renaissance work “Hodie Christus natus est” by Sweelinck.
To allow the two choral groups to re-set their stage positioning, Prakhoff spoke proudly to the audience about a newly developed Bach Choir scholarship scheme, which included bringing young conductors into this evening’s event. Hamish Madden impressed us with his arrangement of “Hodie”, and we welcomed his participation in the program with Sam Daffy and Jessica Zuk as young guest conductors.
Always beautiful is the unsurpassable motet “O Magnum Mysterium” by Luis de Victoria, which showed some lovely tone and colour from the choristers, although at times there was some lack of confidence and accuracy in entries and final notes. A modest and gentle “Alleluia” followed the opening text with its expression of the reverential description of the mystery of Christ’s birth.
We crossed the centuries for Britten’s evocative work A Boy Was Born, where the choristers proved they were capable of bringing a wider palette of tonal contrast, expression and feeling into the text. Certainly Prakhoff had chosen some finely crafted choral repertoire, and it was perhaps a surprise to some to see Poulenc included in a religious nativity program. Composed later in his life, his Four Christmas Motets are a setting of Latin texts completed in 1952 with the nativity scene, the shepherds, and the wise men’s arrival depicted in three solemn and spacious meditative movements. Opening with triple pianissimo and low shifting close harmony, sopranos had a most difficult entry, and in this calm, relaxed and evocative lighter texture, there was some loss of confidence in vocal projection and security through changing metrical changes. Fine joy and contrast was given in the fourth motet, the rousing Hodie – “Today Christ is Born”.
We could not have a Concert in St Andrew’s without audiences wanting to hear the fabulous organ, one of the very few in the world with twin four-manual consoles, and a rank of organ pipes wonderfully in view in the gallery, lit with sunlight through colourful glass windows. Calvin Bowman raised the celebration and glory of Bach’s music and the celebration of the nativity with admirable and resplendent playing of Bach’s Canonic Variation on Von Himmel Hoch. A very smooth, sedate and gently soothing contrast was the next a capella choral work of Vaughan Williams: “The Blessed Son of God”, giving a nicely warm and enveloping aura in the rich acoustic of St Andrews.
Most welcome next was the featured main fare, Christmas Cantata – Sinfonia Sacre by prolific American composer and organist Daniel Pinkham. Organ and brass quintet raised the spirits, excitement and energy levels from all performers, while long bass pedal points strengthened the grand architecture and colourfully orchestrated design of this wonderful composition. Instrumental interludes added muted brass solos, sensitive organ woodwind registrations, and a most welcome “Gloria in excelsis Deo”, now a most welcome allegretto, robust and syncopated, with hints of folk dance rhythms leading into a broader, fortissimo climax showing the choir’s potential.
Four traditional carols for the audience nicely rounded out the program, with a true Fanfare preceding the closing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”. With such fine instrumentalists in a fine venue this is a great opportunity for audiences to rejoice at Christmas time.
Julie McErlain reviewed “A Christmas Fanfare”, presented by the Melbourne Bach Choir at St Andrew’s Anglican Church on December 2, 2023.