Every December Melbourne truly becomes an exciting place. Now as one of the great and growing multi-cultural cities, its diverse annual music events are welcomed as significant and essential in our lives. Within the grand historic walls of St Paul’s Cathedral, the exciting annual concert of carols presented by the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic, one of the oldest secular choirs in the world (approaching its 170th year) is seen as an event not to be missed – as long queues of patrons outside sold-out events every year attest.
The vision in the Cathedral was inspiring. We first saw two hundred adult choristers from the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic and Melbourne University Choral Society, arrayed behind a central golden orchestral harp, and flanked by grand piano, organ, and orchestral instruments, awaiting the reverential procession of the young boys in bright cherry red gowns from the National Boys Choir with the opening “Once in Royal David’s City”.
With an impressive and substantial program, conductor Andrew Wailes smoothly steered proceedings with efficiency, precision and promptness. His programming this year allowed just four known carols to include massed singing with the congregation, his emphasis being on offering a hugely varied feast of new fresh contemporary secular works, and exciting attention-grabbing new orchestral settings of known carols.
Composer Dan Forrest featured early with “There Is Faint Music”, a solemn work of beauty where the adult choirs showed clean diction and disciplined rich crescendos. Standouts were Forrest’s arrangements of “On Christmas Night” (most uplifting with brass ensemble and tubular bells – let’s have more tubular bells!), and Mendelssohn’s “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, a challenging and inventive setting with texts spaced and punctuated with contemporary instrumental motifs and fills. Perhaps it was the widely spread positioning of the National Boys Choir that caused some initial tentativeness in their first song: composer Michael Head’s “The Little Road to Bethlehem”, but the boys told the story with lovely expression and the clearest of pitch and diction. Their featured works included the traditional Ukrainian “Carol of the Bells” with a light and lively joyful expression and a fresh arrangement of “Ding Dong Merrily on High” by Henry Geehl. Two contrasting pieces from Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, a touching rendition of “As Dew in Aprille” and the exciting, polyrhythmic “This Little Babe” with the vibrant harp accompaniment of Jacinta Dennett gave us much delight and inspired admiration for these young voices.
This year’s featured soloist was Australian-German coloratura soprano Anna Vorshage, now based in Vienna, and praised for her debut in RMP’s recent performance of Handel’s Messiah, and tonight owning a popular and powerful rendition of Schubert’s “Ave Maria”. The audience was treated with the true vision of a beautiful angel in fine white satin, who impressed us with a strong and operatic agility, much resonance and fine breath control. A further Christmas present came to us with the surprise that Anna’s husband Elson would join her in a gorgeous duet: the well-loved “Panis Angelicus” by Cesar Franck.
Traditions are many in this spectacular RMP event, with the popular entrance and procession of forthright drummers and pipers from the City of Melbourne Highland Pipe Band lifting our spirits with the sight and sound of a medley of rhythmic carols.
Tonight we also celebrated an accomplished young Australian composer, Hamish Ander, whose arrangement of William James’ popular “The Silver Stars are in the Sky” featured sensitive solo violin and cello lines, while his panoramic “Fanfare on Adeste Fidelis”, with striking percussion and brass grandeur, was a fitting opening for the second half of this multi-orchestrated event.
Always impressive were the arrangements and orchestrations of the concert performances by the combined adult choirs. Each song showcased unified and balanced female or male settings, descant lines were secure and dramatic, visual presentation was professional and disciplined with musical detail and expression exemplary at all times. As master of ceremonies, writer of detailed program notes in a 30-page glossy booklet, musical director, conductor and stage manager, Andrew Wailes’ energy and passion is both authoritative and infectious. Seven “Readings” given by Wailes, Roland Rocchiccioli and Julie Houghton gave a time for calmness, wisdom, and reflection with beautifully spoken Word.
Against the creative piano accompaniment of Stefan Cassomenos, weaving Ronald Bing’s Elizabethan Serenade gently throughout, Roland Rocchiccioli’s Reading paid tribute to one tradition being constant through our lives – the annual Christmas Message broadcast by Queen Elizabeth since 1952 and televised from 1957. He shared his recollection of the Queen’s words, reminding us that Christmas is for children and for the child in each of us, and that “it is better to light a candle than curse the dark.” This year will be a different King’s Message.
With hypnotic pulses, dramatic crescendos, timpani rolls and trumpets adding power to the full choir’s grandeur, an innovative and inspiring setting of “Lully, Lullay, Lulla” (Coventry Carol) by Philip Stopford was a standout success. Stopford’s “Star of the Kings” was also among the best – a piece with humble beginnings that developed with radiant orchestral and vocal power to reach a huge ending. At times some percussion – with so much power in their hands to influence the occasion – could have celebrated with more gusto, as the program broadened in sound through this final and spectacular music. “Joy to the World” is the traditional final celebration, tonight followed by a resplendent Brass Fanfare based on that melody, by composer Robert Hobby. Organist Andrew Bainbridge, who was central to so much of the whole concert, delivering the Organ Postlude, Widor’s Toccata from his Symphony for Organ No 5.
Once again, Melbourne’s RMP Carols in the Cathedral was a huge, well-loved and essential Christmas experience.
Julie McErlain reviewed “Carols in the Cathedral”, presented by the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir at St Paul’s Cathedral on December 16, 2022.