Conductor: Adrian Lucas
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
Birmingham’s Symphony Hall and its sister venue, the Town Hall, have a full catalogue of ways to celebrate and enjoy Christmas, with concerts and events to suit all tastes. The Christmas Classics concert might be aimed at those seeking to take a calmer, more introspective stance, combining carols (some requiring audience participation), sacred choral music, other classical music with strong links to Christmas and a couple of secular Christmas readings. The whole forms an understated but enjoyable kick-off to the festive season.
The main performers are the London Concert Orchestra, formed in 1972 by Raymond Gubbay CBE, and the City of Birmingham Choir comprising over a hundred voices. Our conductor and genial MC is Adrian Lucas, formerly director of music at Worcester Cathedral and, since 2002, musical director of the City of Birmingham Choir. He has a precise conducting style, urging the sounds from both orchestra and choir with neat, bird-like movements. A number of the choral pieces are performed with little or no accompaniment, occasionally just a little from the organ. Their voices work well together in harmony and occasional counterpoint. This is well pronounced in the opening piece, Bach’s “Jauchzet Frohlocket” from his Christmas Oratorio. Regal trumpets, interlocking parts and counter melodies all combine to set the mood for the performance. In “In dulci jubilo”, arranged by Pearsall, the great organ of Symphony Hall is played with utmost delicacy by Julian Wilkins to accompany the choir. Some unaccompanied pieces, for example, “Sing Lullaby”, are beautifully quiet and introspective.
The orchestra also has the opportunity to shine. For example, in Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers”, a beautiful rippling harp introduction from Susan Blair transports us into a world of imagination before giving way to the well know theme for horns and orchestra, played with smoothness and plenty of swing and sway.
Also appearing on stage for several pieces is soprano Elizabeth Atherton. Her voice is powerful and clear, for example, in her first piece, “Of the Father’s Heart Begotten”, and especially in Handel’s “Let the Bright Seraphim”, in which the musical conversation between singer and trumpet is well pointed. Her rendition of “The Coventry Carol” is both wistful and mournful, in keeping with its message.
In among the beauty of the music are set two readings, one in each half, from Brian Blessed. The first is the well-loved “A Visit From St Nicholas” from Clement Clark Moore, though not until Blessed has given the audience a few anecdotes and proved he also has a very fine tenor voice should it be called upon. Sadly, Blessed did seem under-prepared on this occasion, losing his place in his notes at one point, though his natural ebullience covered well for that. The second reading is from late in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, in which Scrooge, reformed, surprises all by buying the largest turkey available for the Cratchits, subsequently increasing Cratchit’s wages. Blessed’s reading is accompanied by Bach’s “Air on a G String”, which works very well. Blessed’s background in acting is well to the fore here as he fills the tale with life.
One highlight, from the choir comes after the interval in the form of “Christmas Pudding”, a medley of Christmas songs and carols, skilfully woven together, sometimes with two being sung simultaneously by different parts of the choir. The whole sounds like a single piece, so skilfully are the individual tunes joined. The audience was challenged to count how many appear in the three minute piece – I counted nineteen; according to Lucas, I missed five somewhere.
A concert including classical music from Christmas rather than ‘Christmas Classics’, but one that showcased some real talent and did set the scene for a more reverential Christmas.
Reviewed on: 20th December