Classical music reviews by Mike Wheeler

Derby Concert Orchestra, Derby Cathedral

You don’t usually expect to find the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in the middle of a Christmas concert, but there it was, bringing its own kind of gravitas to Derby Concert Orchestra’s annual shindig. A strange choice, yes, but on its own terms it was a good, taut reading.

Otherwise, it was business as usual, with lots of tinsel, both aural and visual, on display, alongside less obviously seasonal, but still fun, items.

Five movements from the Suite No 1 from Bizet’s Carmen included a fiery Aragonaise, and a delightfully cool Intermezzo, ending with Les Toréadors delivered with gusto. Rossini’s William Tell overture, was vigorous and atmospheric by turns, although the opening section, for five solo cellos, fought a losing battle against an unhappy toddler in the audience. Saturday Night Waltz, from Copland’s Rodeo, found something of the underlying wistfulness, followed by a spirited, though not always tidy, Hoe Down

Robert Russell Bennett was a brilliant orchestrator for a long list of top Broadway shows, but his so-called ‘Symphonic Scenario’ on South Pacific makes the old, old mistake of trying to cram in too much material, and it simply went on far too long. Much the same can be said of Leroy Anderson’s Christmas Festival.

Of course it wouldn’t be a Christmas concert without audience participation, and alongside a couple of carols was a more off-the-wall choice of singalong, Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, led by local professional singer Carmel Edwards in fetching angel wings and halo (some of the words were missing in the programme). It turned out to be the unexpected hit of the evening. A selection of Abba songs got similar treatment after the interval.

Last year we had just the galop from Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld. This time, the orchestra and conductor Jonathan Trout gave us a spirited performance of the complete overture; the final section got some of the audience producing some impressive high kicks in the centre aisle. Not so many people as last time, though, which was a pity.

 Derby Cathedral Choir, Derby Cathedral

Inheriting Derby Cathedral Choir’s biennial Messiah performances from his predecessor, Master of the Music Hugh Morris put his own stamp on the proceedings in a performance that was delectably airy and light on its feet.

The choir was on fine form, crisp and confident in ‘And the Glory of the Lord’ and ‘And He Shall Purify. Ensemble in ’O Thou That Tellest’ was well defined, and there was a real sense of accumulating excitement in ‘For Unto Us A Child Is Born’. A jagged, sharply pointed ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ and a brisk ‘Surely He Hath Borne Our Griefs’ well captured the change of tone in Part 2. Add in, among other things, a rip-roaring ‘Hallelujah’, and a final ‘Amen’ building impressively from a low-key start, and you have a choral contribution as fresh and invigorating as I’ve heard from this choir.

Of the generally fresh-voiced soloists, soprano Alison Gormley was radiant in ‘I know That My Redeemer Liveth’, and it was a real treat to hear the original 12/8 version of ‘Rejoice Greatly’, sung so winningly, too. Alto Phoebe Eley made ‘He Was Despised’ all the more eloquent for the simplicity of her approach, backed up by a good flowing tempo.

With his somewhat intrusive vibrato, tenor Robert Jenkins’ tone tended to lack focus, but this was offset by the sharp articulation and phrasing that, among other things, made ‘Thou Shalt Dash Them’ incisive. Andrew Randall, a sonorous baritone rather than a cavernous bass, had the buoyancy to navigate runs cleanly, giving authoritative accounts of ‘Why Do the Nations’ and ‘The Trumpet Shall Sound’

The limpid-toned Heart of England Orchestra can rarely have sounded better, with enough weight for the grand moments, and engaging transparency elsewhere.

 Sitwell Singers, St John’s Church, Derby

How to begin a Christmas concert – ease the audience in gently or make them sit up and take notice? There was no mistaking the Sitwell Singers’ and conductor Malcolm Goldring’s chosen approach on this occasion, as they pinned listeners to the backs of their seats with a vibrant, punchy account of James MacMillan’s O Radiant Dawn. It was a breath-taking opener that will stay in the memory for quite some time.

Among the other highlights, Sweelinck’s Hodie Christus Natus Est was taken at a nice bouncy tempo by the choir’s Assistant Conductor Carolin Hlusiak, who also directed the first of three arrangements by Norwegian-born Ola Gjeilo. His thoughtful, atmospheric treatment of ‘The First Nowell’ got a performance to match, with challenging moments such as the tonal shift at “And by the light of that same star” negotiated without turning a hair.

Riu, Riu, Chiu, attributed to sixteenth-century Spanish composer Matheo Flecha the elder, got a vigorous, incisive reading, contrasting neatly with the sensitivity of Thomas Hewitt Jones’s What Child Is This?

Having commissioned a new piece from Bob Chilcott for their fiftieth anniversary concert a couple of months ago, the Sitwell Singers tuned to him for three items, capturing an effective dynamic range in the bluesy Remember O Thou Man, with the piano part idiomatically played by Tom Corfield (whose sterling keyboard playing gave solid support throughout the evening), navigating his infectiously lively 7/8 arrangement of the Sussex Carol, and entering into the spirit of his take on the gospel number ‘Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow’. Ken Burton’s arrangement of ‘Go Tell it on the Mountain’ was just as idiomatically handled.

But it was Ola Gjeilo who was given the last word, with his hushed, sensitive version of ‘Away In A Manger’; with the choir’s magical, impressively controlled diminuendo at the end, it was absolutely the right note to finish on.

Derby Choral Union, Derby Cathedral

Five years ago, Derby Choral Union and conductor Richard Dacey moved into the choral jazz repertoire in the shape of Will Todd’s Mass in Blue. An equally successful return visit for their latest Christmas concert brought the Magnificat from Todd’s Durham Jazz Evensong, and A Christmas Cantata by Swedish composer Nils Lindberg, composed in 2002 and receiving, we were told, only its second UK performance.

The choir teamed up this time with the Midlands Youth Jazz Orchestra, directed by John Ruddick, who had a slot to themselves, bringing an infectious sense of swing to classy arrangements of seasonal favourites such as Irving Berlin’s ‘Let it Snow’, and Mel Tormé’s ‘The Christmas Song’, with some fine saxophone, trumpet and trombone solos. There were, though, some balance issues with the choir, particularly in the Todd Magnificat, and occasionally with the soloists in the Lindberg.

The choir also had moments to itself, including a sonorous account of the increasingly popular Carol of the Bells bMykola Leontovych, and a brisk, vigorous one of the John Joubert classic, Torches.

Nils Lindberg’s A Christmas Cantata is a delight, a meeting of big-band jazz and choral traditions with no sign of mutual embarrassment. Lindberg has set sections of the biblical text in English, punctuating it with mostly English carols – Derby Choral Union taking the opportunity to bring in some audience participation – but including a Swedish one as well, and ending with some thoroughly secular laughing, quaffing and figgy pudding.

Narration is divided between the choir and the soprano and bass soloists – on this occasion Sarah Dacey and James Oldfield – who also take the lead in some of the carols. The soprano has an extended vocalise as Mary reacts to the shepherds’ visit to the stable, which Dacey took and ran – no, flew – with. The account of the angels appearing to the shepherds is delivered in rhythmic choral speech, a potentially awkward passage which the choir carried off with conviction. The tone of the work as a whole was beautifully projected, as was Todd’s more gospel-style Magnificat.

Not your average carol concert, then, and all the better for it. Everyone rose magnificently to the occasion, bringing cheers and whoops of delight from the audience.