Testing resilience of Christmas message

Oriana Chorale:
A Poet’s Christmas
Reviewer: Jennifer Gall,
Canberra Times, 13 December 2011

The latest musical offering from The Oriana Chorale drew inspiration from a broadcast made by the BBC Home Service on Christmas Eve, 1944. Poems and new music were sourced from British composers and poets to present a brave body of artistic work locating the Christmas Story in the context of a world torn apart by war.

These lines from Laurie Lee’s Winter Poem capture the mood of the original broadcast and the tone of the music presented in Sunday’s concert:

Tonight there is no moon,
but a new star opens
like a silver trumpet over the dead.
Tonight in a nest of ruins,
the blessed babe is laid.

David Mackay’s choice of repertoire was a far cry from familiar Christmas carols. Much of the music selected had been conceived in an atmosphere of suffering. Composers were writing while the conventional morality of society was destroyed by World War II.

Mackay’s programming always encourages a ‘slipping out of time’ for the listener, creating a spacious environment for contemplation.

In this demanding concert, the Oriana Chorale maintained their customary discipline and created a cleverly balanced program of complementary vocal textures and some truly luminous moments. The sopranos worked particularly hard, with many challenging, exposed lines that were delivered clearly. Soloists Andrea Holland, Jo Johnstone, Sarah Rice and particularly Emma Griffiths brought a range of distinctive qualities to their performances, enhancing the tonal colours of the ensemble.

Matthew Orlovich’s Nativity allowed the tenors and basses to shine, creating a heartbeat with their interweaving lines. Peter Campbell’sIn Advent Heat opened the gate for glowing harmonies and resonating dissonances that developed as the repertoire became increasingly demanding. Auden’s bizarre poem A Shepherd’s Carol, set to music by Benjamin Britten, was a highlight, with John Virgoe’s solo creating a humorous vignette. Britten’s A Boy was Born captured the mysterious nature of the music, the performance making the room reverberate in an eerie way.

Other highlights were Mackay’s setting of Mary-darkness, a setting of Jessica Powers’ poem featuring an exquisite soprano solo; a powerfully-focussed performance of Lennox Berkeley’s There was neither grass nor corn; confident chordal resonances in Peter Warlock’s Bethlehem Down, and the concluding version of Away in a Manger by David Drury.

A Poet’s Christmas was a concert to remember for the courage demonstrated in the music and by the musicians, taking the audience outside a conventional carol service to test the resilience of the Christmas message in our own uncertain times.