★★★★☆ This Christmas cracker offers something more substantial than the usual festive fare.

Melbourne Recital Centre
December 5, 2015

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat, and all around the nation orchestras and ensembles are preparing to ring in the festive season with that obligatory annual fixture, the Christmas concert. One of the first out of the blocks this year is also one of the most consistently popular: the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s Noël! Noël!

While concerts of Christmas music are expected from most classical groups, they can all too often be deathly dull. The same pieces, with their northern-hemisphere centric depictions of frosty winds and bleak mid-winters, are predictably trotted out, programmed for their nostalgia and ubiquity rather than any musical merit. Yet this beautifully judged programme from the Australian Brandenburgs was a very welcome display of how festive themed performances needn’t be a cookie cutter affair.

Of course there were the seasonal favourites of the traditional carols to round off this programme in rousing fashion, but before this Artistic Director Paul Dyer offered an abridged history of music written to celebrate the birth of Christ. Beginning in the early 15th century with Ockeghem’s mesmeric round setting of Deo Gratias, before taking the audience on a journey through the ages to the 20th-century and the Pleni Sunt Caeli of Ola Gjeilo’s Sunrise Mass, Dyer’s brilliance was to weave a subtle academic undercurrent into the fabric this concert. As the nation’s experts in ancient music, this programme was not only appropriate to the ABO’s skill set, but also highlighted the fact that many of the most enduring works in western classical music have their origins in the ancient past. However this intellectual programming wasn’t at all self serving or naval-gazing. This was a performance of subtle period authenticity and quietly superb musicianship, while maintaining the bright, unpretentious character so essential to the success of a Christmas concert.

Paul Dyer, Emma Birdsall and the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and Choir.

The familiar instrumental forces of the ABO were pared back, with just a handful of musicians accompanying the star attraction of the evening, the Brandenburg Choir. Dyer’s direction of the chorus has a very instrumental quality, focused on the architecture and nuance of the phrase. This crafted, lyrical control was reflected in the flawless blend and timbral agility of the singing, which was always in service of the form and content of music. This was perhaps most expertly displayed in the Renaissance polyphony of Jacobus Clemens non Papa’s O Magnum Mysterium, which revelled in the complex, constantly mobile counterpoint of this music while achieving an impressively deft clarity of the interlacing melodies within the texture.

With so many short works on the bill – 18 pieces in total – it is easy for a concert of this type to feel fragmented and lacking any satisfying heft. However Dyer is a showman who understands the importance of theatricality and stage management. The careful choreography of this performance not only offered an air of polished professionalism, but also kept the momentum of the programme in check.

While the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra are a period instrument ensemble they are not precious about only performing ancient music (or instruments for that matter, as was the case when the orchestra and chorus adopted ukuleles and kazoos to perform the delightfully corny Mele Kalikimaka). To contrast the ecclesiastical piousness of the historical works, Dyer has included some jazzy interludes into this programme featuring pop artist Emma Birdsall, a one time finalist on the popular TV talent show The Voice. Singing three ballades across the course of the evening, each with its own sequined costume change, Birdsall radiates an extremely affable charisma and sings with a sweet yet dusky tone. During Birdsall’s performance of Adolphe Adam’s popular carol, O Holy Night, in a gospel arrangement, the instrumentals, singers and Dyer himself were all visibly relishing the brief foray into another genre, and crucially it was this unashamed joy that made this concert so thoroughly enjoyable. Christmas is a time for feeling uplifted, and without for a moment sacrificing musical credibility, that’s exactly what Noël! Noël! does.

The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra present Noël! Noël! on tour in NSW until December 17.