With twenty-five years experience as Artistic Director and Chief Conductor of the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic, Andrew Wailes continues to work tirelessly to bring the biggest and the best annual fine music celebrations to Melbourne in two of our most venerated historic performance venues. Just days earlier, the performance of Handel’s Messiah in the Melbourne Town Hall was reputed as being one of the finest in Melbourne’s history. With tonight’s Carols in St Paul’s Cathedral employing the combined adult choirs led by Wailes – the RMP, Box Hill Chorale and Melbourne University Choral Society – the result was, as always, a well-loved fabulous spectacle of voices and instruments, and a capacity audience.
Wailes ensures that popular traditions are met. We love the program opening without announcement or fanfare, with the gentle unaccompanied voices of angels – the National Boys Choir of Australia approaching from the shadows behind us. Processing down the aisle and setting a reverent mood while telling the story “Once In Royal David’s City”, they reached the floodlit stage as the full massed choir, orchestra and audience joined in to amplify the splendour of the celebration. In this hefty program, the Christmas story was heard in carols from many centuries, cultures and genres, and this year Wailes had also focussed on presenting traditional carols with new Hollywood-style blockbusters from composers he has commissioned to re-arrange in a fresh, dramatic and exciting style with unexpected and adventurous harmonic settings. The National Boys Choir members were spread widely in front of the adult forces for their singing of Hadley’s gentle “I Sing of a Maiden”, Brumby’s rhythmic lullaby “Balulalow”, and later Kodaly’s” The Angels and Shepherds”, which showed their ability to achieve balance and unity on a huge stage. Confidence with difficult single part entries developed in the later popular piece “Walking In The Air” (from The Snowman) and a rhythmically bouncy and delightful “As I Outrode this Enderes” night, with colourful and pastoral “clip-clop” patterns from the pristine piano accompaniment of Stefan Cassomenos.
This audience was most positive and willing to sing along with every carol, even when not always required, such was the keenness to participate with the RMP. Firmly recognised as an Australian carol, W G James’ “The Silver Stars Are in the Sky” showed the adult choirs, in concert, giving us the very best qualities of tone, balance, dynamics, beautiful expression and clearest diction. Leading British composer John Rutter is a household name for lovers of choral music, admired by all for his compositions and orchestrations, and his “The Colours of Christmas” offered a variety of delights, lyrical flowing lines, super pleasant harmonies, coloured orchestration and warm strings and touching oboe melodies. Young composer Dan Forrest is always an RMP favourite, his contemporary ballad, “Let The Stable Astonish”, showing well disciplined, confident and nicely blended female choristers with solo cello and piano. Male voices and instruments entered with rising crescendos and uplifting spirits.
Although there were no female vocal soloists this year, an audience loves to hear their favourite songs, and the popular Christmas repertoire of Schubert’s “Ave Maria”, “The Holy City” and “O Holy Night” were executed professionally and with the clearest of diction by tenor Roy Best.
We were impressed with the richness and powerful tone of bass baritone Jeremy Kleeman, whose voice projected expressively through the cathedral first with an intriguing 13th century Basque carol: “The Angel Gabriel”, and later with fresh orchestral arrangements of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”, and a beautiful “Stille Nacht” (Silent Night) first with violin, flute and cello accompaniment and then nicely defined growing melodies from oboe, bassoon, horn and glockenspiel.
Readings by Roland Ricchiccioli, Julie Houghton and Andrew Wailes added a personal and spiritual reflection time, reminding us of both historical and contemporary traditions. Mood enhancing piano music accompanying some readings this year did, however, become more than background piano accompaniment and was distracting as listening was divided. The atmosphere became busy then with words and piano solo work occasionally competing for our attention, including a complete and lovely performance of Chopin’s Etude Op. 10 No. 3 in E that shared Ricchiccioli’s speech. With the variety of items in a swiftly flowing production, this also meant that roaming photographers and sound technicians were on the move, necessary perhaps in newly designed events, but occasionally distracting or impeding audience vision.
Most admirable was Wailes conducting “in stereo” Franz Biebl’s very beautiful “Ave Maria” (Angelus Domini) as a small three-part choir was placed mid-way in the nave amid the congregation, weaving a magical aura with the four-part central choir. With Australia experiencing meteor showers this week, in St Paul’s, several audience and orchestra members closed their eyes to be immersed in this rather special sonic environment. And always, cameras come out and people stand to enjoy everybody’s favourites – the Melbourne Highland Pipe Band’s drummers and pipers. This year we also admired the colourful stage presentation, performers in elegant black and red trim, and appreciated Wailes’ presentation of exciting contemporary orchestral settings with extra brass, tubular bells and percussion fanfares, with organist Andrew Bainbridge sending us home very happily with Widor’s spectacular traditional Organ Symphony.
Photo credit: Paul Dodd
Julie McErlain reviewed “Carols in the Cathedral” presented by the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic at St Paul’s Cathedral on December 15, 2023.