End of term

On Saturday with my old friend and former high-school English and drama teacher, Lw, to the Sydney Philharmonia’s concert, titled “An English Christmas.”

Lw had a spare ticket because V, who was in the choir, had thought she would not be singing, and so had booked a ticket for herself and Lw.

The title alone was the sort of thing which would otherwise have driven me away rather than drawn me in – it had the whiff of that shop in the Glasshouse where they sell marmite and other English staples.

The attraction was the second half, which was Britten’s cantata, Saint Nicolas.

The first half was structured round the movements of “Peter Warlock”‘s Capriol Suite, played by the Philharmonia [scratch, really] orchestra, led by Jemima Littlemore. As the suite has six movements this meant that there were six carols or brackets of carols – the last was Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Christmas Carols. The baritone soloist for that and at least one other number was the improbably youthful looking Alexander Knight.  He has bright red hair with a somehwat Dickensian peak at the front, which somehow added to the English-Christmas flavour.  He sounds just a bit too youthful for my ideal sound-image of the baritone soloist in this work, but he has admirable clarity of projection.

I have sung in choirs myself in the past, and so nearly all of the items were familiar to me – not really carols in the congregational or even secularish (Rudolf) sense, but choral numbers of the sort that the English choral-christmas industry (of which the Vaughan Williams must be a relatively early type) has churned out in such enormous numbers over the years.

The other soloist was Amy Corkery, last seen as the lesbian maid (OK: only joking about the lesbian bit) in Pique Dame.  Perhaps concerned at filling such a large hall, she let loose rather alarmingly at the top of her register.

Choirs filed on and off; the massed choirs (“Festival Chorus”) sang a few, easier, numbers; every one of the Philharmonia’s conductors got a guernsey.  It all felt just a bit like a school concert.

Apart from the Vaughan Williams Fantasia, my favourites were an arrangement of Michael Head’s “Road to Bethlehem,” (really an art song) sung by “Vox” (the youth choir) and Britten’s Hymn to the Virgin (except that the semi-chorus seemed too big).

After interval, a woman came on to the stage.  That was ominous.  She announced herself as Sarah Watts, the president [?] of the Sydney Philharmonia Ltd.  The speech-day resemblance strengthened, as she welcomed the governor and the Minister for Citizenship and Communities, and Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Victor Dominello, who was there with his mother.  He then gave a speech.  To give him credit, apparently he had been to all of the Philharmonia’s concerts in the year.

After waxing lyrical about our “much loved” governor Marie Bashir, Mr Dominello got a bit more political.  I became restive.  That’s not the sort of thing I come to a concert for!

It turned out that it was recently National Volunteers Week, a topic within VD’s responsibilities.  He extolled the virtues of the choristers as volunteers.  Lw (who is recently retired as a professional do-gooder for some Catholic organisation) and I exchanged glances.  Surely Philharmonia singers are not volunteers?  Well, they might be if they go and sing to some sick people at a hospital, but otherwise and at concerts such as this we both thought that they are people who love to sing.  They’re amateurs!

After that, Brett Weymarck jauntily taught us the hymns that the audience is required to sing as the congregation would in a Bach passion (once upon a time).  We had sheet music.  Oddly, he took us all the way through the “Old Hundredth” and then dealt most cursorily indeed with the more obscure “God moves in a mysterious way.”  Probably because the concert was already going to be overlength,

The cantata was OK though it didn’t quite live up to my expectations or recollections.  Perhaps the venue is too big.  The role of St Nicolas must be a rather thankless one, and it is certainly taxing.  Andrew Goodwin had a bit of a 78rpm wobble.  He has such a reputation and seems to have a successful career but I can’t quite see the basis for the general acclaim.

The cantata depicts the saints early life (Goodwin’s “God be glorified” a bit underwhelming here), then there is a sea journey with attendant miracle, and his crowning as bishop – after which we sang “All creatures that on earth.” There is a wonderful “Alleluia” when some pickled boys (it’s BB, remember) come back to life. Towards the end there is a “moving right along” chorus narrating a series of miracles and picturesque events.  My favourite is that “rising with the wrath of God” he “boxed Arias’s ear.” That’s Arias of the Arian heresy, by the way, and apparently it happened at the Council of Nicea in 325.  Then St N meditates on the meaning and end of life and goes to meet his maker.

That’s when you get “God moves.”  It’s a wonderful hymn, more Poetic than the hundredth psalm.  In St Nicolas, the point is that it starts quietly (those mysterious ways, especially death, rather on my mind as I had gone to two funerals in the week prior) and then builds up to the big finish.  That didn’t quite work out as it should have because everybody was too enthusiastic to join in and so it started too loud.  Brett forgot to tell everyone what “mp” meant on our music sheets, and the choir didn’t pay too much attention either.  Not that I suppose I can complain about them, given that they were volunteers.

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