2016 has been a strange and disconcerting year in the global scheme of things and I for one have been feeling slightly discombobulated, wondering when I was going to start feeling as I love to do, filled with the spirit and blessings of Christmas.
It finally happened at the Melbourne Recital Centre on Saturday evening 10th December 2016, when the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra (ABO) in Ensemble mode, together with the Brandenburg Choir and special guest New Zealand born soprano Madison Nonoa gave its audience the gift of beauty.
They presented a Christmas concert to remember, one that made our hearts leap for Joy. They charmed, entertained and not only raised us all to new heights, but also filled us with new hope.
Beauty abounded as collectively the Brandenburg musicians, together with the Choir and songbird Madison Nonoa presented an outstanding program of marvelous music infused with passion and love. It exuded the timeless virtues of noble simplicity and quiet greatness.
Successful programming is a great skill and co-founder, conductor, musician and artistic director of the ABO Paul Dyer excelled himself this year, creating an annual festive treat sure to resonate. He chose an outstanding array of chant, hymns, instrumental works, and songs that were woven together as a wondrous whole, inspiring us all.
The first concert was slightly delayed as Dyer explained, their travel plans had gone awry with a delayed plane meaning the musicians arrived just 30 minutes before they were to be on stage.
However, like great professionals do they triumphed, ending their very successful year on the highest possible note with an outstanding program of festive music.
Over the centuries the instruments played and the voices that have either sung, or narrated to music have been a powerful force affecting the lives of many people.
Arriving on stage singing a sixteenth century ode to joy the Brandenburg Choir singing as one voice in harmony together set the style, sounding not only out of this world, but also in holy chapel mode; a capella.
Theirs was a superb rendition of Wachet auf, a hymn composed by German composer Phillipp Nicolai (1556-1606) arranged by his contemporary Michael Praetorius (1571 – 1621) who had the Midas touch.
Contemporary composers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe and England created sounds of unparalleled intensity as the Baroque era was born of an exciting free imagination, its music reaching the highest pinnacle of human achievement.
With all trumpets blazing triumphantly, the ABO Ensemble featuring Paul Dyer on harpsichord, Matt Bruce and Ben Dollman on Baroque Violin, Monique O’Dea on Baroque Viola, Rosemary Quinn on a Baroque cello, Leanne Sullivan and Rainer Saville on Baroque Trumpet, Ros Jorgensen, Brett Page and Nigel Crocker on Sackbut, with Brian Nixon on Timpani-Percussion, Tommie Andersson on Theorbo and Guitar and Heidi Jones on Chamber organ presented the most delightful work by an unknown Italian or Austrian composer, the Sonata á 9.
Once in Royal David’s City is a Christmas carol used often as a processional hymn in church on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. It was introduced eloquently to the stage by Madison Nonoa, who quite literally knocked our socks off; here was a voice, ethereal, elegant and quite simply, breathtaking – beauty stayed suspended loftily in the air as she thrilled us all.
Looking very festive in her lovely short frock decorated with green leaves and red berries, she sang the carol that narrates the wonders of the nativity scene, which is what Christmas is really all about, saying thanks for the blessing and gift of the Christ child.
The tune by English organist, organ designer and music critic Henry John Gauntlett (1805-1876) has very moving words by the very talented Mrs Cecil Frances Alexander (wife of the Bishop of Ireland).
In her own right she was an author of children’s hymns, including All Things Bright and Beautiful and the unforgettable ‘There is a Green Hill far away’, which my generation used to sing at the church on the beach at Coogee in Sydney every Australian summer as I was growing up.
Everyone loves the music of the vivacious Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) and the ensemble flowed straight over to his delicious Concerto for Two Trumpets in C Major, RV 537 with great élan.
Then followed an achingly wonderful modern version of Ave Maria (arr. A. Palmer) composed by a Russian guitarist Vladimir Vavilov (1925-1973) who struggled to have his songs heard.
Supported by the choir, Madison Nonoa continued to wow us all as her voice warmed up and it became even more glorious if that is possible.
There were so many points, during her delivery on the night that I have to confess the hairs on the back of my neck and arms gave her their own standing ovation.
As a producer who used to have her own opera troupe for a while during my journey in life, I fully concur with Paul Dyer’s assessment, that here is an exceptional talent of whom we will hear much more, especially if both luck and talent prevail.
Then it was time for the trumpets and sackbuts to sound a fanfare of their own. O Little Town of Bethlehem (arr. A. Palmer) is a poignant Carol whose words were written by a man who claimed to have stood in the field where angels were said to have announced the birth of Christ – fabulous inspiration.
Vaughan Williams based this version on an English folk ballad for the music.
The Spheres, the first movement of the Sunrise Mass composed by Norwegian Ola Gjello (1978), Kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy, Christe Eleison, Christ have mercy, was delivered by the Brandenburg Choir in full sacred mode – wondrous… I seem to be running out of superlatives.
Then followed the stunning Coventry Carol (arr. A. Palmer) sung by Madison Nonoa, who drifted back on stage in a glittering full-length gown to perform one of the supreme highlights of the night.
It was far too glorious for words and they completely failed me at this point and I surrendered myself entirely to the beauty of sound.
The instrumental work following was composed by Luys de Narváez (1526-1549). Con qué la lavare (arr. T. Coelho) was a stunning madrigal of love, based on a sixteenth century poem and expressed with great depth of feeling by Tommie Andersson on Theorbo, Rosemary Quinn on Baroque Cello and Heidi Jones on Chamber Organ.
The next Christmas Carol re-ignited the atmosphere, as the Brandenburg Ensemble performed God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen (arr. A. Palmer) with great humour in the tradition of a ‘wassail song’. They presented it with a light, lovely touch of fun, as you would if you were going ‘wassailing’ – door to door and singing it for your neighbours.
The highlight of the night for me as a lover of superlative Baroque music, would have to be the completely wonderful and stunningly uplifting gem, the Ciaccona á 7 composed for a chamber ensemble by Philipp Jakob Riettler.
We looked on admiringly while we listened as Australian Brandenburg musicians explored Riettler’s music through virtuosity and ornament. It was truly divine, abundance without confusion, reflected in polished, powerful and yet graceful forms, reaching a pinnacle of achievement.
Nineteenth century French poet, playwright and novelist Victor Hugo believed music expressed ‘that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent’.
His quote sprang into my mind as the musicians played, plucked and passionately performed, enjoying themselves immensely with some strolling around the stage expressing the pure joy of beautiful Baroque music.
A Ciaconne, often spelled Chaconne is a treasure of lyrical expression, noted as an ideal base on which to create wonderful variations. It was originally inspired by dance music that appeared in Spain around 1600 and was ultimately embraced by the French Court through its great composer Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687).
Little is known of Riettler who lived in Austria and Moravia except that he was a priest, a talented composer and musician active 1669 – 1673. This work is characterized by harmonic progression and it wasn’t hard as the Brandenburg Ensemble played, to imagine dancing to such music in the bounteous gilded beauty of the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.
Time to change the mood as we met morphed into the sweet sounds of glorious chant as Madison Nonoa together with Lauren Stephenson a soprano from the Brandenburg Choir, took us apart completely.
O Salutaris Hostia performed in the tradition of music had words written by Saint Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, although the lovely piece of music they were sung to was composed in contemporary times by Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds.
This was definitely one of those we are listening to two angels sing moments.
I couldn’t help but think that composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) would have been happy with the rendition of Hark The Herald Angels Sing.
Then as we folded over into the contemporary song that breaks down barriers, The Luckiest (arr. Jim Clements) a personal connection was made for my companion, my daughter and law and I.
We were deeply touched by this moving work composed by Ben Folds - one of our family friends sang it at her wedding to my son in 2014.
Then came the hymn that never fails to render me completely undone, Cantique de Noel by Adolphe Adam (1803-1856). Madison Nonoa proved that a beautiful voice is a gift, when singing this gem of all gems.
Amazing Grace* that outstanding hymn to hope followed. Written by John Newton an English sailor turned slave trader who converted to Christianity and helped England’s mighty slave-trade abolitionist William Wilberforce by inspiring him to pursue a life of service to humanity.
With the words … and grace will lead me home ringing in our ears, it was time to wrap up this experience of sublime excellence with a glorious Stille Nacht by Felix Gruber (1787-1863) and the carol of all carols, whose composer to this day remains unknown – O Come All Ye Faithful, a gift of great beauty to the world.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2016
Australian Brandenburg Orchestra
NOËL NOËL ON TV
Switch on and enjoy this program, which is being recorded for Foxtel Arts in the St Francis of Assisi Catholic Church at Paddington in Sydney this week. The performance is sold out.
It will be broadcast Christmas Eve at 9:10 pm.
*Welsh actor Ioan Gruffud as William Wilberforce sang Newton’s hymn in the movie of the same name, Amazing Grace (2006), certainly one to download and watch over the holidays.