What a joy it is to be a witness to the successful musical journey of a star, the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra (ABO).
Each year the ABO Noël Noël concert has a very special focus, with medieval carols, English, French and German hymns, Gregorian chant and Christmas songs integral to artistic director Paul Dyer’s program of both sacred and secular songs spanning 600 years of music evolution.
This year while staying on point metaphorically the ABO let its hair down every time their lovely, perhaps surprising guest artist glided onto the stage.
What a beautiful excuse the lovely songbird Emma Birdsall provided.
She wowed the crowd with her simply sensational voice, looking absolutely fabulous in three fashionable vintage style gowns while singing a quartet of contemporary songs full of emotion and meaning, a wonderful diversion from the theme.
Sensitively accompanying the Brandenburg Choir and Emma Birdsall were select members of the Orchestra, who provided a rich round luscious sound of music.
They included two Baroque violins, viola and cello, played by Matt Bruce, Ben Dollman, Monique O’Dea and Rosemary Quinn with Paul Dyer on Keyboard alongside Brett Page, Ros Jorgensen and Nigel Crocker providing a period brass section of Sackbuts (slide trombones) with Tommie Andersson on Theorbo and period guitar, Heidi Jones on Organ, Brian Nixon the percussionist and Jess Ciampa on Bass guitar.
It was the encore Emma Birdsall sang with the men of the choir that really stole the show.
This was highlighted by the leader of the orchestra on the night Matt Bruce, who pulled out his bright red ukulele and started strumming.
Mele Kalikimaka (Merry Christmas) is an easy to listen to Hawaiian Christmas Song composed by Robert Alex Anderson in 1949, made famous by Bing Crosby and The Andrew Sisters in 1950.
Since then many other singers from Arthur Lyman to Bette Midler and Chris Isaak, have also covered it.
The audience erupted at the end.
French Baroque with Circa, Vivaldi Unwired, Handel: Heaven and Harmony all about mistaking earth for heaven, as well as Mozart’s Fortepiano were all memorable evenings produced in 2015, featuring not only the talents of the ABO’s outstanding array of guest artists, but also their own players, all of whom are masters in their field.
For me the opening trio of pieces all sung ‘a capella‘ (in the manner of the chapel) sounded sublime. It was just like glorious Gregorian chant on steroids, splendid truly knocks your socks off stuff.
The evening opened with the simply superb sacred Deo gratias, which means Thanks, be to God. Composed by Johannes Ockeghem (1410-1497) a Flemish musician who spent some fifty years at the French royal court, this very special work was highlighted by its rich layer of musical textures.
The Brandenburg Choir was at the top of its form and the Elizabeth Murdoch Recital Hall the perfect acoustical venue to resonate the voices so they could replicate Ockeghem’s superlative sounds.
Wonderfully, the choir’s male and female voices crossed in and out of each other, weaving superbly balanced harmonies, like those that once scaled the heights of great Cathedrals, reverberating off faceted stone arcades and lingering long in lofty places
O Magnum Mysterium by Belgian composer Jacobus Clemens (c1510-15 d.1555 or 6), who wrote masses, motets, chansons and songs followed. This is another extraordinary responsorial chant, originally part of a monastic night-time liturgy.
Next came Wie Schön leuchtet der Morgenstern – how beautifully shines the morning star…and so it did, so much so I felt quite transported as the choir sang noe, noe (Noel Noel).
Then it was time to start building even richer layers. German composer organist and musical theorist Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) composed some truly magnificent hymns.
His stylish Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen of 1609, a rose has sprung up… has provided a vehicle for choirs for four hundred + years to provide some truly seventh heaven style singing. This night was no exception.
Sing, leap, rejoice, Exult, thank the Lord; Great is the King of Glory! – it was all quite literally ‘lovely, amiable, beautiful and majestic’.
A little known work by Dutch composer Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621) Hoe schoon lichtet de morghenster, another how lovely shines the morning star experience was also very fine, and surely deserves to be integral to any Christmas music experience.
Then it was time to lighten the mood with Gloria in Excelsis Deo or as we know it more today, Ding Dong Merrily on High, composed by Tholnot Arbeau (French cleric Jehan Tabourot 1519 – 1595) with words added during the mid-nineteenth century.
This was a true festive delight and the audience loved it.
German composer Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707) was one of the greatest exponents of the art and composition of organ music.
His works combine virtuosity with dramatic interpretation and sensitivity, ensuring the sounds when heard are very easy on the ear.
His Herr, wenn ich nur dich hab (BuxWV 38) is truly all about the best in Baroque music, with a melody sung superbly by a soprano from the choir, that was meant to both charm and delight.
Starting slowly with just the sweet soft sounds of that glorious instrument the Theorbo played so skilfully by Tommie Anderson the other string instruments joined in ensuring that this short cantata with text from Psalm 73 certainly made me feel like shouting Alleluia!
Tourdion – Quand je bois du vin clairet a lively dance and well-known French song from an unknown composer of the ‘Renaissance’ was a true charmer. The use of the Tambourine with its merry jingling folky sound ensured the audience embraced it.
It was joyful, and the ABO breathed new life into works that have been favourites for centuries.
Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi (1567 b – 1643) is renowned for his madrigals, operas and church music.
The work Paul Dyer chose showcased Monteverdi’s towering, very dramatic style – a truly sensational Beatus Vir; Blessed is the man extolled that ‘even in darkness light dawns for the upright, for those who are gracious and compassionate and righteous’.
In this wonderful setting for Psalm 112, Monteverdi contrasted pairs or small groups of voices with the weight of the full chorus, one of the most characteristic features of Baroque music.
You could literally hear the ‘wicked man gnashing his teeth in anger’ in a song originally sung at Vespers, a Roman Catholic evening service.
A Thousand Years by American singer-songwriter Christina Perri and David Hodges is a heart-wrenching piece from the motion soundtrack for the movie Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn.
Featuring Emma Birdsall, with the choir and two male soloists, plus Paul Dyer on keyboard, this was breathtaking, revealing both her beauty and star qualities admirably.
Latvian composer Rihards Dubra composed the next work his Ave Maria III in 1994. Hauntingly beautiful, it reflected how in our age he has devoted himself exclusively to the composition of sacred music, setting his liturgical texts in Latin.
They have been conceived for concert audiences who may not have any theological or liturgical understanding. He believes his music is about everyone’s spiritual journey, as opposed to a religious one.
He is quoted as saying ‘People should not always understand the text exactly because its meaning is encoded in the music … my main task is to work on people’s subconscious level, people’s emotional level.’
Next followed Divisions on Ancient Carols, a trio of well-loved Baroque style works; a glorious German hymn by Praetorius; Greensleeves, an Elizabethan dance tune; and a medieval Christmas carol, Gaudete! Christus est natus (“Rejoice! Christ is born”).
Arranged by Cornetto virtuoso Matt Manchester, who played his extraordinary and very difficult instrument so stylishly in concert with the stunning Sackbut (slide trombones) they infused the works with their magical playing.
The Ground: Pleni Sunt Caeli or the Beginning (arr. A. Palmer) is a work I admire by contemporary Norwegian composer and pianist Ola Gjeilo (b.1978-). Inspiring, ethereal and full of beauty, ringing out that ‘heaven and earth are full of your glory’ while achieving Gjeilo’s aim of providing a ‘bed of warm and evocative sound’. Goodness, it was so deeply moving that I felt as if Jesus himself would have heartily approved.
Then it was time to remind us all of the meaning and joy of Christmas: the birth of the saviour of the world with the choir singing Away in a Manger by nineteenth century composer William J Kirkpatrick (arr. O. Gjeilo) embracing the message of Christmas – Caring, Courage, Compassion and Love.
What a beautiful rendition Mr Dyer. It was transforming.
Emma Birdsall then strode back on stage to sing ‘This girl is in love with you’ by Burt Bacharach and Hal David (arr. A. Palmer).
A feel good former No 1 on the American Billboard pop singles in 1968, the year my first son was born, hundreds have covered this work since, although quite unlike Emma’s very generous version, which delighted everyone.
The ABO began to end their glorious night of Xmas music with traditional carols God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and one of the ‘oldest extant Christmas carols in European tradition often sung only by men The Wexford Carol, both cleverly arranged for Sackbut and Cornetto. Wonderful.
Emma Birdsall provided a unique version of O Holy Night, arranged by Alex Palmer. Today in the town of David, a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. Luke 2:10-11.
This was followed by her unexpected and totally delightful rendition of Mele Kalikimaka (Merry Christmas) that had all the audience softly rocking along too.
We ended with the fabulous feel good carols Silent Night and O Come All Ye Faithful, the audience thundering their approval by acclamation and joining in for an encore refrain.
As Xmas now races up fast, on my way home I reflected on how ‘with one accord’, the management and players at the ABO once again in 2015 presented an outstanding series of creative concerts for their subscribers, sponsors, fans and followers to enjoy. Each year you say to yourself the next cannot top that last one, but seemingly it does.
Music is above all the great healer of humankind and a concert with both sacred and secular music as this program, provides that wonderful link from those we have loved in the past to those we share our life with in the present and also speaks well of a kinder and more generous future.
Especially when lived in tune with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015
Also available on iTunes their latest CD: A Very Brandenburg Christmas, the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and Choir taken from their recording of Christmas 2014 in the City Recital Hall, Angel Place, when they captured angelic voices singing in tune.
Ockeghem Deo Gratias
Clemens non Papa O Magnum Mysterium
Anon Wie Schön leuchtet der Morgenstern
Praetorius Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen
Sweelinck Hoe schoon lichtet de morghenster
Arbeau (arr. A. Palmer) Ding Dong Merrily on High
Buxtehude Herr, wenn ich nur dich hab (BuxWV 38)
Anonymous Tourdion – Quand je bois du vin clairet
Monteverdi Beatus Vir
Perri/Hodges (arr. A. Palmer) A Thousand Years Featuring Emma Birdsall Dubra Ave Maria III
Traditional (arr. M. Manchester) Divisions on Ancient Carols
Ola Gjeilo (arr. A. Palmer) The Ground: Pleni Sunt Caeli
Kirkpatrick (arr. O. Gjeilo) Away in a Manger
Bacharach/Davis (arr. A. Palmer) This guy’s in love with you Featuring Emma Birdsall
Traditional (arr. A. Palmer) God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen & Wexford Carol
Adam (arr. A. Palmer) O Holy Night Featuring Emma Birdsall
Mele Kalikimaka (Merry Christmas) Featuring Emma Birdsall
Gruber Stille Nacht
Anonymous (arr. D. Willcocks) O Come All Ye Faithful