Always thrilling, always exciting, the traditional concert of festive carols and readings presented by Royal Melbourne Philharmonic is a spectacular and ambitious event, this year being a mammoth program scheduled four times within two days. Few conductors would tackle such a marathon Christmas spectacle with three choirs under their direction – RMP, Box Hill Chorale and Melbourne University Chorale Society totalling over 200 voices – in an almost continuous flow of music for a 90 minute program of varied texts and styles.
Highlights are always expected too, with music from traditional and contemporary settings around the globe, including a stirring Scottish troupe from the Melbourne Highland Pipe Band playing surprising choices, such as the Czech tune Carol of the Drum and French carols Ding Dong Merrily on High and Angels We Have Heard on High – not often heard in Melbourne on bagpipes. Highly acclaimed Wagnerian soprano Olivia Cranwell gave a dramatic colour and shape to the classics What Child Is This (tune of Greensleeves) and Suo Gan – a Welsh lullaby, giving a grand, stately and solemn interpretation to the usual “folk” style, while a very expressive soloist, Christopher Hillier, had the crowd in his hand with The Holy City, colourfully enhanced by the accompaniment of Stefan Cassomenos, piano, and David Macfarlane, organ.
St Paul’s Cathedral is an awe-inspiring space, a historical and spiritual landmark, its interiors providing a deep resonance and a visual aura of sparsely lit caverns with soft golden lamplight, stone walls and ghostly shadows. For many of the families and members of the audience, this annual performance is a very special event. The sense of community and the joy of singing in celebration together, so essential at the end of this hard year, was felt immediately in the opening song O Come All Ye Faithful, enhanced by an inspiring, rousing introductory Fanfare on the same hymn, composed by Andrew Burch and commissioned by conductor Andrew Wailes for this event.
What was remarkable tonight, were the dynamic, fresh and innovative instrumental accompaniments for every work, as traditional texts and familiar melodies were there for us, but the contemporary settings and creative instrumental designs were fresh and exciting. I Saw Three Ships whipped up a storm with exciting brass and percussion displays, and a potpourri of themes from other traditional carols were also determined to be there for the ride. Always, the full choir performances are a tribute to the well-oiled machine of organisers taking the RMP into its 168th year of celebrating choral music.
Known for his beautiful, panoramic arrangements, Dan Forrest’s contemporary settings of carols are great festive pieces. Gloria In Excelsis Deo gave the choir long solemn notes, powerfully effective above an active, syncopated accompaniment, with a long crescendo adding excitement and an African rhythmic feel as the climax built. His setting of Silent Night was certainly innovative and contemporary, with melodic phrases being lengthened through long slow sections, the familiar rhythms of the melody extended and made more smooth and flowing, as an elaborate rich texture of rising scale patterns and waves of soaring vocal lines created a very new and elaborate texture.
Always, between featured soloists, massed choir works with varied accompaniment – piano, organ, harp, orchestral ensemble – were six readings, professionally and warmly delivered by Roland Rocchiccioli, Julie Houghton and Andrew Wailes, producing a variety of engaging personal reflections on the biblical or contemporary meaning of Christmas. Also added to this lengthy but well-paced and continuously flowing program, were four new choral works. Ecce Novum by Ola Gjeilo was almost a peaceful lullaby, where the choir sustained long notes over continuous barcarolle style arpeggios on the piano, with colourful tonal shifts building towards a final Amen with full orchestral accompaniment. From the 2009 animated film A Christmas Carol, God Bless Everyone was a gentle reminder of the spirit of giving and sharing with others, and Glow, by popular Grammy winning composer Eric Whitacre, was a beautifully calm and appealing modern work. Another Dan Forrest special, Hymn of Creation, asked the performers to fill the cathedral with an exciting anthem as colorful brass and percussion further enhanced a huge final note.
Always too, the 30-page glossy Program is a Christmas gift, with extensive information on all participants, musical biographies of leading artists, historical relevancies, information and photos of composers (that indeed is a rare thing), and lyrics of songs for audience participation. Also noteworthy was the inclusion of the popular William James song Christmas Day (The North Wind) in the ALL SING category, thus ensuring that this Australian composer is of central importance in our Christmas repertoire.
Julie McErlain reviewed “Carols in the Cathedral”, presented by the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic in St Paul’s Cathedral on December 17, 2021.