Happy Christmas concert from Nota Bene at The Prefab in Jessie Street

Nota Bene Chamber Choir, conducted by Mark Dorrell

Prefab Hall, Jessie Street

Thursday, 17 December 2015, 6.30pm

From the moment I arrived in a packed Prefab Hall, standing room only, and found the last seat thanks to a friend signalling to me, I was in an informal atmosphere of enjoyment. Well over 150 people were present, a good 40 or so of whom were standing round the walls.

The seating was arranged on three sides, the choir performing from the other side. This hollow square arrangement made for good sight lines, and a feeling of everyone being involved. Acoustically, the hall was fine, not being low-ceilinged, and having plenty of timber around.

Mark Dorrell gave informal introductions to many items, and for those that were accompanied, he played on a tolerable electronic keyboard.

The choir immediately impressed in the first of several carol arrangements by Sir David Willcocks, with its strong tone and excellent legato singing. This was ‘Birthday Carol’, a bright and jolly opener to the concert.

The beautiful Czech carol ‘Rocking’ made a complete contrast, with its gentle lullaby character. It was followed by what was possibly a New Zealand premiere: ‘If ye would hear the angels sing’ by Peter Tranchell (British composer, 1922-1993). It featured soloist Joe Haddow, in a piece that began gently, then broke into fortissimo, then subsided to piano at the end. A charming carol – but Sir David would not have approved of the emphasised ‘thuuh’ – he believed in throwing away this unimportant word, and pronouncing it as a less prominent ‘thi’.

A modern setting of the well-known ‘Angels from the realms of glory’ was next. The tune was varied and interesting, and very vigorous.

The audience then had its turn, singing with the choir ‘Once in royal David’s city’ and ‘The first Nowell’. All the carols in which the audience participated were sung with energy and panache, and a thoroughly good sound.

Poulenc’s setting of ‘Hodie Christus natus est’ is another joyous song, and the choir sang it unaccompanied. The music is quite tricky, with a good deal of staccato. The tenor tone in this and the following carol was occasionally a little raw. However, words throughout were very clear. The next was also by a French composer: ‘Hymne à la Vièrge’, by Pierre Villette (1926-1998), and also unaccompanied. It was a contrast with the previous carol, having long legato lines, but great dynamic gradations. The French pronunciation was good.

Also a French carol, but in an English translation and arranged by an Englishman (who was an early mentor in Mark Dorrell’s musical life), John C. Phillips, ‘Listen to the sounds in heaven’ featured attractive singing from the women, in what was quite a tongue-twister, and whistling from the men. Mark Dorrell gave it a lively ‘pom-pom’ accompaniment.

The audience had its chance again in ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ and in a loud and hearty ‘Hark! The herald angels sing’, with the Willcocks descant.

A modern carol was ‘Jesus, springing’ by noted British choral composer (and former member of the famed King’s Singers), Bob Chilcott. Like the late Sir David, Chilcott has visited New Zealand. Mainly accompanied, this was an appealing carol, with interesting harmonies. ‘Tomorrow shall be my dancing day’ by John Gardner (1917-2011), another British composer had a very bouncy setting. Here, I missed the resonance of the piano in the partly accompanied piece. Nevertheless, it had considerable appeal.

After the interval, we were into the more light-hearted part of the Christmas repertoire. Leroy Anderson’s ‘Sleigh Ride’ had received a jovial arrangement. This item was accompanied; I noticed that, presumably because Mark Dorrell was accompanying rather than directing many of the items, the choir members tended to be stuck in their copies, not looking up. This limits the communication with the audience.

The world premiere of an amusing parody, entitled ‘Deck the porch’, was next. The words were by John Smythe, who was present, and had won a competition in the New Zealand Listener with his Kiwi take on a traditional Christmas carol. It required clear diction; I got most of the words. The refrain was ‘Come and have a barbecue and bring your togs’.

A change of mood gave us John Rutter’s setting of Shakespeare’s words ‘Blow, blow, thou winter wind’. (A topical parody could be ‘Blow, blow, thou Wellington wind’). It featured, as well as fine singing, a lovely ‘piano’ introduction and accompaniment. There followed a medley of popular Christmas pieces, in which the audience joined, with noticeably good attention to rhythmic details. ‘Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer’ was followed by ‘Have yourself a merry little Christmas’ and ‘Jingle bells’.

The choir gave us Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, in a multi-part arrangement for unaccompanied choir (this had the choristers looking up more) that was most effective, then ‘Be a Santa’ from a show entitled Subways are for Sleeping, by Jule Styne (1905-1994). Four male soloists from the choir helped bring out its verve and fun, as did the several changes of key.

We all know the ‘Twelve days of Christmas’, but ‘Twelve days to Christmas’ from She loves me by Jerry Bock (1928-2010; Fiddler on the Roof) was a hilarious look at the human tendency to leave everything till the last minute, seen from the point of view of workers in a department store.

After the audience had its turn in ‘Silent Night’ and ‘O come all ye faithful’, perhaps the two most popular carols, the choir sang ‘A merry Christmas’ (that’s the one about figgy pudding) to end. But the audience demanded more, so a repeat of ‘Be a Santa’ made a good way to end the concert.

Throughout, much precision in enunciation was required and supplied, so that the audience could enter fully into the entertainment, and everyone went away happy.


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