All the angels in heaven were singing Noel Noel on the evening of December 5th, 2014 as Paul Dyer AO, the Artistic Director of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra (ABO) played, conducted, cajoled and coaxed the very best result from a creative ensemble team of players and singers.
They had gathered around him to bring to fruition the ABO’s annual Christmas concert at Melbourne. Together they were heralding the coming of Christmas, that time of the year where the message for humanity is all about caring, courage, compassion and love.
This stunning concert brought the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s superbly programmed 25th anniversary year celebration of renowned excellence to a close with the voices of angels singing O Come All Ye Faithful.
Judging by the enthusiastic acclamation, the ‘faithful’ audience certainly enjoyed Dyer’s well-designed cross – cultural concert of sublime sounds and songs of love.
The Brandenburg stage offered a platform that was all about the art of sound inspiring ideas of ‘peace, healing and friendship’. At times it was if the sweet sounds had sprung from a sweetly flowing spring on a mountain far away to refresh our hearts, our minds and our souls.
Larysa Kovalchuk is a concert performer, soloist, soprano, music lecturer and choir conductor.
She was born into a family of artists and musicians in the Ukraine where she learned to sing before she was able to speak.
Ukraine is a country where Eastern Orthodoxy established by St Paul and the Apostles, through the Roman and Byzantine empire, absorbed the exotic sounds of both east and west.
Playing on a vintage folk instrument the Ukrainian Bandura, she created sublime sounds that helped us all to imagine the auditorium filled with ‘scented flowers, singing birds, softly pealing bells and water wheels’.
The sounds she created so exquisitely took on poetic significance as Larysa channeled to us today the captivating sounds of her homeland.
After she had gloriously achieved a magical ambiance through her playing then, Larysa began to sing.
The audience was stunned into silence, the beauty of her voice singing Ave Maria certainly made all the hair on my arms stand up in awe.
It was Gloria in excelsis deo.
Angels we have heard on high
Sweetly singing o’er the plains,
And the mountains in reply
Echoing their joyous strains
At the beginning of this artful journey the concert highlighted the Deus in adiutorium.
This is a 16th century work from the Cathedral at Cadiz, which was composed by Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla (1590 – 1664).
The work was written at a time when chants and polyphonic (many voices) choral music of the church liturgy was luring people to the fold with magical sweet sounds of music and the illuminated radiance of stained glass.
The piece is a complex marriage of sounds and this quietly moving rendition was both entirely enticing and inwardly uplifting.
It rose with exuberance and then endearingly receded, until only the soft sounds of the voices lingered on the soft night air.
It was quite simply breathtaking. Amen, Alleluia!
Next was the simply wonderful hymn Come Down, O Love Divine – Down Ampney by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) named for the village where he was born in England.
The text is a 19th century translation of Latin Words believed to have been written by the Archbishop of Canterbury Cathedral during the 13th century.
The arrangement by Christian Forshaw, a contemporary English composer and virtuoso saxophonist, is an exploration of soundscape.
As I have sung this truly beautiful work many times in the choirs I have been involved with during my own musical journey in life you can begin to appreciate that I was transported into my own kind of seventh heaven.
If there was no other way to spread the message of Christmas, this is the song that could do it. The lovely soprano stepping down from the choir Anna Sandstrom, certainly sang with great empathy and feeling.
‘And so the yearning strong, with which the soul will long, shall far outpass the power of human telling. For none can guess its grace, till he become the place, wherein the Holy Spirit makes his dwelling’.
Soloist Matthew Manchester stunningly played his period Cornetto with Basso Continuo, both enchanting and charming the audience with the ‘traditional’ work he arranged – Divisions on Ancient Carols.
Tommie Andersson on his Baroque guitar and Brian Nixon, principal Timpani and Percussion provided an exotic sound, in tune with the whole Baroque period’s great fascination with mixing the sounds of east and west.
Interestingly Matthew Manchester and Anna Sandstrom are husband and wife duo who enjoy exploring the strong connections between music and voices and cultures during the 16th and 17th centuries. As soloists they certainly allowed us all to feel and share their passion.
During the Middle Ages the Cornetto was an instrument that belonged to all ‘society’ – contemporary reports tell us it ranged between being cheaply made to being a ‘king of instruments’ played by ‘highly-paid virtuosi’.
What it does do delightfully is express every sort of tonality, just like the human voice. Manchester proved to be a ‘virtuosi’ of the first order playing in ravishing style.
As we recognised some of the carols played you could feel an audible sigh of comfort and contentment happening all around the hall.
Then it was Johann Sebastian Bach’s turn.
Christmas really isn’t Christmas for me without a beautiful bit of JS Bach (1685-1750) leading the charge. The piece chosen was his superb concerto in C minor BWV 1060 with Brandenburg soloists Ben Dollman on a Baroque violin and Christina Leonard on period Saxophone instead of the Oboe, an inspired piece of re-casting. They were both outstanding.
This work is a showcase for players and Dollman and Leonard made the most of their golden opportunity as they lured us with the sensational sounds of their chosen instruments.
They displayed superb technical skill and wonderfully moving eloquent compassion giving the piece rare pathos; celebrating our very best qualities in harmonious proportion.
Then onto the stage came Layssa with her Bandura to enchant us all at first with her Traditional Duma and Kozak March played and sung with such feeling we were all quite done in.
Bells and chimes were among the most significant components of the late European and English medieval soundscape that were all about heralding events and telling of the time when the rebirth of humanity began.
In this period of the history of music the sounds it projected took on an almost mystical significance. Larysa certainly recreated that atmosphere in spades,
She is a ‘classic’ artist of renowned excellence, one who we will hope to see a lot more of during the next 25 years of the Orchestra’s cultural development.
A most exquisite new arrangement by that talented Sydney based youthful musician Alice Chance followed. It was of a stunning work by Russian composer Vladimir Vavilov (1925-1973) that has gained world notoriety in recent years, recorded by luminaries such as Andrea Boccelli.
Ave Maria was sung by Larysa first and then the choir. Oh my goodness, it was hard to believe this sublime aria was only recorded first in 1970. It certainly is what the ‘Baroque’ was certainly all about.
This truly magnificent rendition of Ave Maria had abundance, without confusion simple sweet clarity and beauty of style.
The arrangement offered the beauty of progression and recession in musical movement, as well as revealing those hidden depths where we can all explore our spirit and soul.
The very real art of any community singing in tune, be it out on the streets or inside on a stage, is that while they may have outstanding voices individually when they come together they not only gather the courage but also the momentum to give an outstanding performance.
The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra under Dyer’s direction presents music as the language of the heart and soul and a means of expressing actions and experiences.
This surely culminated completely in the singing of the Agnus Dei (lamb of God) of American composer Samuel Barber (1910 – 1981) performed by choir and orchestra.
This strikingly powerful piece of music contributes strongly to our sense of place as well as our understanding of the powerful aural ambiance bringing artistic and technological innovation together to create sweet sounds of harmony and humanity.
This is undoubtedly the music of ‘inner harmony’, a choral setting of Barber’s splendid Adagio for Strings, which was performed with such empathy.
Barber composed this music with clear, simple, structural vision in a language that was accessible to the majority and based on music from the past. He became the most celebrated musical artist in America before he was thirty years old when it was performed by the NBC Symphony Orchestra directed by Arturo Toscanini who declared the piece ‘Semplice e bella” – simple and beautiful.
Then back on stage came Larysa to perform another lovely Traditional Ukrainian work arranged again by Alice Chance – Near the Hill.
This was followed by an arrangement for the choir by Alice Chance of the aria “Ebben! Ne Andro lontana” from the opera La Wally by Alfredo Catalani, composed on a libretto by Luigi Illica, and first performed at La Scala, Milan on 20 January 1892.
Many would know the Maria Callas version…the choir, led superbly by its sopranos highlighting Anna Sandstrom, sang it superbly - ‘I will go alone, far away, among the clouds of gold’.
Then it was that great carol that everyone loves at Christmas, Stille Nacht (Silent Night) by Felix Gruber (1787-1863). The trio of verses were sung the first in German, the second in Ukrainian and the third in English. Happy days.
This was followed by an upbeat version breaking the mood and bringing us back to the present – Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.
Re-arranged with a touch of humour and delight by Paul Dyer, we were all instantly put into the mood of having ‘a merry little Christmas now’.
Baritone Nick Gilbert joined Paul as both sang this beautiful song, accompanied by Paul on harpsichord.
This is my Brandenburg buddy’s favourite song from a very favourite classic movie we both adore Meet Me in St Louis, which starred Judy Garland.
Then came the compelling finale, ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’, the well known much loved hymn written by anonymous and originally sung in Latin.
This lovely hymn has gone through many translations and interpretations down through the centuries since it emerged and was first sung in England during the eighteenth century.
Today it still delights.
The spirit of each age finds expression in its music as well as in its cultural and social life. It expresses emotions and ideas in significant forms with rhythm melody, harmony and colour elements contributing to creating an art of sound. It also provides an atmosphere wherein calm can prevail in a very busy world.
The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra with this wonderful concert certainly aspired to and reached that special place where music and life came together in complete harmony.
Noel Noel with a Twist presented the case for East and West coming together in a fusion of styles and sweet sounds in a sophisticated acoustical setting like the Elizabeth Murdoch Recital Hall to create musical harmony and inspire the future of musical excellence and peace in our world. And, it made its point stylishly.
The audience went away with great smiles of delight on their face and in the foyer afterwards the friends we met were all animated, laughing and happy and said they were finally looking forward to Christmas, having been put so wonderfully in the festive mood by the ABO.
This was a concert that scored 10/10 in everyone’s hearts and made sure the King of Angels was smiling too.
Shepherds why this jubilee?
Why these songs of happy cheer?
What great brightness did you see?
What glad tidings did you hear?
Gloria in excelsis Deo
Gloria in excelsis Deo
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2014
Photos: On Stage, Elizabeth Murdoch Recital Hall, Melbourne, December 5th 2014, courtesy Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and Steven Godbee photographer,
Steven Godbee Publicity p: 0408 706 099 e:[email protected]