Orpheus Choir of Wellington Christmas Concert
Mark W. Dorrell: Conductor and pianist
Alistair Wilkinson: Compere and narrator
Merran Cook – oboe, Peter Lamb – bassoon
Te Papa Marae
Sunday 24 November 2013
The programme for this concert comprised brackets of Christmas choral music sung by the Orpheus Choir, interspersed with groups of sing-along carols for both choristers and audience. There was a very good turnout, with lots of youngsters, and overflow standing at the back. Two concerts were scheduled for the afternoon, as the marae is only a modest space, especially for a choir of 150 members.
Ding Dong Merrily on High opened the choral singing with great gusto, followed by Bach’s setting of an old German tune O Little One Sweet, and The Shepherds’ Farewell from Berlioz’ L’Enfance du Christ, both beautifully executed.
The choir was in marvelous voice, and their obvious enjoyment immediately set a festive atmosphere for the afternoon. I was struck by the excellent acoustics of this space, though 150 voices at full bore were at times just overwhelming. But the acoustic characteristics of the room transmitted a clarity of diction which was absolutely exemplary, be it in the initial English numbers, or later foreign texts. The balance of voices was also excellent, despite the usual choral handicap of a shortage of tenors.
The conductor Mark Dorrell then got the audience involved in the first group of sing-along carols, with the choir joining in and providing harmony and descant at various points. He chose Hark the Herald Angels Sing, Once in Royal David’s City, O Little Town of Bethlehem, and While Shepherds Watched their Flocks, all sufficiently well known to engage the audience enthusiastically.
Alistair Wilkinson then stepped up to narrate John Rutter’s fable with music Brother Heinrich’s Christmas, which has parts also for oboe, bassoon and choir. The star of the tale is the rather down trodden donkey Sigismund, whose thankless daily task is to go round, and round, and round the courtyard to crush the grapes from the monastery vineyards. Brother Heinrich is his kindly keeper who, as choirmaster, agrees to Sigismund’s ambition to sing in the monastery choir, despite his range being restricted to the two notes of ee-aw (provided in comical, and somewhat hang-dog spirit by the bassoon).
The other Dominicans resent Sigismund’s intrusion, and plot to exclude him from the choir when the Bishop visits for Christmas Mass. But Sigismund saves the day when he provides those same two, forgotten notes for Brother Heinrich’s new carol – first sung by the angelic choir in the heavens above the monastery, and hastily written down for the service. Sigismund is reinstated in the choir, which is duly complimented by the Bishop for providing the best Christmas Mass he can remember. His memory might have been somewhat clouded by a fog of excellent monastic wine, but there could be no doubting his sincerity. The performance was a standout winner with the younger members of the audience, and the adults were just as taken with it too.
Another bracket of sing-along carols followed, being Good King Wenceslas, Away in a Manger, Te Harinui, Silent Night and O Come all Ye Faithful. Then the choir presented Pierre Villette’s Hymne a la Vierge, which is full of
gentle harmonies, lilting melodies and warm background humming effects, which were all beautifully executed in a mood of loving homage. The dissonance of the final chord was left floating in the air with great artistry…….
Next followed John Rutter’s lovely setting of Shakespeare’s Blow Blow Thou Winter Wind, taken from the song cycle When Icicles Hang which Rutter wrote for Wandsworth Boys’ School Choir in London. This too was rendered with great clarity and delicacy, and enhanced by interjections of tinkling icicles from Mark Dorrell on the upper reaches of the keyboard.
The final bracket involving the audience was Jingle Bells, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and White Christmas, which were all sung with festive enthusiasm. The choir then offered Lauridsen’s lovely setting of Sure on This Shining
Night with great affection and tenderness before bursting into We Wish You a Merry Christmas! for the final number. The multi-coloured decorations of the wharenui formed a brilliant backdrop for a most successful afternoon of musical celebration, and everyone went home with a smile on their faces.