Christmas, Limelight

Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, Melbourne Recital Centre
December 17, 2017

Formed in 1939, the Australian Boys Choir was this country’s first secular boys choir. For the past 35 years under the artistic directorship of Noel Ancell, the choir has presented a yearly subscription season normally ending with a popular Christmas concert. The health of a nation’s culture might be measured by how well its children sing. Based on this performance we are doing pretty well.

In this Christmas season, we are once again reminded of ancient and poetic scenes of the Christ Child within a crib in a manger nursed by the gentle mother Virgin Mary, shepherds beneath a starlit sky tending to their sheep and told by an angel to witness the miracle event, then the journey of the three wise men from the East following the morning star, itself a symbol of hope, to deliver their gifts of gold, incense and myrrh in Bethlehem.

The theme of this concert’s well-designed programmme, as its title suggests, was ‘mystery’. It included no fewer than five contrasting settings of the 12th-Century text O magnum mysterium (Oh great mystery), a meditation on the birth of the Christ Child in a manger surrounded by animals. The concert opened with the Gregorian chant setting of the text, sung by young tenors and basses processing from the back of the hall. This was followed by an intricate Slovenian Renaissance setting for adult male voices by Jacob Gallus antiphonally sung from either side of the stage. Eighty younger choristers dressed in splendid royal blue robes then joined their more senior colleagues on stage. Much of this Christmas scenery was again presented in the hymn A great and mighty wonder that sets ancient words by the mediaeval Gallic Bishop and later Saint, Germanus of Auxerre to a 14th-century German melody complete with its reassuring refrain “And peace on earth to all men!”

The younger members of the choir were then on stage for a long time, perhaps overly long, with several having to seek refuge offstage from the bright lights. This endurance test, however, was met by the courage of the large majority that remained responsive and committed to each and every instruction from their director Noel Ancell. In Bethlehem Town by American choral director and organist Robert Lau and Dormi Dormi, sung in Italian from memory and skilfully arranged by Mary Goetze, were both pleasing contributions directed by teacher-in-charge, Naomi Heyden.

Two works by Bach sung in German followed under the animated and enthusiastic direction of Assistant Artistic Director Nicholas Dinopoulos: Zion hört die Wächter singen “Zion hears the watchmen singing” from famous cantata Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140, and Bereite dich, Zion from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248 that uses the analogy of the arrival of the Christ Child as that of the bridegroom for Zion.

English choral director Peter Hunt’s arrangement of Stille Nacht heilige Nacht was a welcome inclusion. Composed by Austrian primary school teacher and organist Franz Xavier Gruber the work is a serene lullaby that has delighted the world since its composition in 1818. The delicate, suave, profound, and rhythmically complex settings of Francis Poulenc’s O magnum mysterium and Hodie Christus natus est from 4 Motets pour le temps du Noël (1952) were then sung by the senior choir. Considerable attention to detail was in evidence though not quite enough with equivocal and sectional harmonic detail lacking focus and solidarity. Two works that involved the excellent playing of cellist Chris Howlett followed, a further setting of the concert’s theme text by the Swiss composer Ivo Antognini, and then perhaps the musical highlight of the concert, the spacious and sincere Nordic composition Serenity by Ola Gjeilo.

Interspersed were rousing hymns for the audience to join in: Joy to the World!, It Came upon a Midnight Clear, the redemptive God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, O Come All Ye Faithful and finally Hark! The Herald Angels Sing that lifted the roof.

It is a matter for congratulation that the tradition of children being trained to sing so well is maintained. This festive concert was enthusiastically applauded by a large audience of proud supporters.