All the traditions of Christmas and the hallmarks of surprise was what the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra (ABO) promised, as it ended yet another fine year of marvellous music making under the inspiring baton of artistic director Paul Dyer AO, generously giving the gift that has the power to unite us all – glorious music.
Dyer quite literally jump started the Xmas season for so many fans and followers of the ABO, with his simply outstanding finale concert for 2017, NOËL! NOËL!, premiering Saturday 9th December in the Elisabeth Murdoch Recital Hall at the Melbourne Recital Centre.
Presented by its talented ABO musicians together with the Brandenburg Choir and with their special guest star Tenor Joel Parnis, this truly stunning Xmas feast of music would have to go down on record as one of their best to date. It flowed so seamlessly.
NOËL! NOËL! was a concert that was all at once dramatic, holy, majestic, strong and calm, full of pathos and with many heart stopping breathlessly beautiful moments.
Conjured up magically through clever programming of works by composers and arrangers both past and present, NOËL! NOËL! included superb singing and skillful playing, while powerfully reflecting the joy of living in Australia today.
It seems we have the best of all worlds. Beautifully realised the splendid choice of works from 16th century Renaissance rock star Palestrina to the 20th century musical icon Irving Berlin, meant the audience were treated to a tour de force of beauty, skill and sublime craftsmanship.
This concert (without an interval) flowed superbly from one moment to the next with both ease and grace. The twelve musicians of the ABO on period instruments were on the night full of musical energy, offering shades of great subtlety as they supported the Brandenburg Choir who sang, as indeed a choir should, ‘as if it were one voice’.
What an outstanding voice it turned out to be; superbly nuanced with colour and beauty and with a richness of sound that ensured they achieved a complete medium of expression. In some of its very special moments, it was truly sublime
The concert began with a trio of works before the audience was allowed to go wild.
It started in prayerful mode with two in the highly developed polyphonic style from the pen of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1552-1594) allowing the ABO to feature its own sublime trio of Sackbuts, an ancient forerunner of the trombone.
The choral Kyrie from the Missa Gabriel Archangelus, the first book of the Mass, in which Palestrina revealed his genius for balancing the different voices that were increasingly being used to obtain pleasing harmonies in his day, was truly wondrous.
The choir singing this Kyrie provided a breathtaking magical moment, one which would amazingly only be exceeded by hopping from the past to the present.
The final work in the trio was the superbly arranged version of My Love is Always Here from acclaimed award winning French film composer Alexandre Desplat (1961 – ). This was a truly gracious hymn written for a four part choir in the movie Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1.
This was for me the real highlight of the night, certainly the sweet sounds that I would still be hearing hours later as well sated, I finally drifted off to sleep.
Beauty and grace, well it is not enough to say, hair standing up on the back of your neck and arms perhaps tells the story best. It was one of those moment when you are left entirely speechless because of the beauty of it all.
Then Joel Parnis arrived on stage singing the Christmas carol many love best, Once in Royal David’s City followed by the choir singing a marvellous Magnificat by revered British composer Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625).
The players then poignantly performed an instrumental period piece by composer Orlando di Lasso (1532-1594) followed by two Christmas songs… a traditional Deck the Halls, rearranged by English choral composer John Rutter was indeed, both lively and imaginative.
The wondrous Christmas song arranged by David Foster (1949) for his wife Linda Thompson-Jenner, My Christmas List performed by Joel Parnis with Paul Dyer on the Steinway grand was a delightful surprise.
This was followed up by a medley of traditional Christmas carols, Good King Wenceslas and Hark the Herald Angels Sing, with some very special playing from Percussionist Jess Ciampa and that trio of much admired Sackbut performers Ros Jorgensen, Nigel Crocker and Keal Couper with Tommie Andersson on Baroque guitar.
John Rutter (1945-) produced his Nativity Carol, the scene of the baby in the manger painted so superbly by the colour filled voices of the Brandenburg Choir, singing ‘as one’.
Joel Parnis revelled delightfully in his twelve days of Christmas next and the audience were all quite diverted. He made us all feel excited about being there. He was charming, charismatic and he most especially evoked the sense of fun and fantasy aspect of the festive season with his delicious delivery. The audience loved this piece with a passion, the text having been cleverly crafted by comedian Mark Humphries and with Alex Palmer’s new arrangement, it was all about joy.
There followed an instrumental work by French composer Gabriel Faure (1845-1924) contrasting with the choral work The Ground: Pleni Sunt Caeli from Sunrise Mass by Ola Gjeilo (1978-), both featuring the piano.
Joel Parnis arrived back on stage to deliver a beautiful rendition of My Prayer (Bring Him Home) from Les Miserables by Claude-Michel Schonberg (1944- )…arranged by Alex Palmer, followed by Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, with Joel ably supported playfully by six men of the choir.
Alex Palmer, the Sydney based musician, who completes many arrangements of music for the ABO, all of which compliment both past and present composers, was up next with his own composition All Nearness Pauses, While a Star Can Grow sung so superbly by the choir a Capella with Palmer conducting.
A rare and special treat.
Then came the final trio of the night… Joel Parnis with the ABO and the Brandenburg Choir singing the spine tingling Cantique de Noel (O Holy Night) by Adolphe Adam (1803-1856), Stille Nacht (Silent Night) by Franz Xaver Gruber (1787-1863) and O Come All Ye Faithfull, the Latin hymn Adeste Fideles, attributed to no one at all, anonymous.
This arrangement by David Willcocks features its most famous translation by an English priest Frederick Oakeley, which since 1841 has become the most well-known.
The biggest compliment the audience can pay the ABO at the end of such a sterling concert is that they don’t want to leave. Quite literally the applause just keeps thundering on until they are all forced to leave the stage, except for a few musicians who play a final refrain and then leave so that we will too.
NOËL! NOËL! from the ABO in 2017 was indeed a gold star event as the amazing team assembled showcased how the wonders, achievements and beauty of the past can help us all to invent a future we would all want to share; one enriched by glorious images, sweet words and even sweeter, the sublime sounds of truly marvellous music.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2017