It’s not something I’ve done before – gone to a Carol concert that is not in a church. In the run up to Christmas there are always the candlelit Advent and Christmas carol services at St John’s in Notting Hill, as well as the Christmas services at the children’s schools. There is the parents’ choir at our daughter’s new school ( Cue: “Oh mum, no -you are not going to sing in the parents’ choir. That. Is. SOO. EMBARRASSING!!!”) And if that’s not enough carol singing for any woman ( even a former “choirgirl” ) , of course there’s midnight mass on Christmas Eve. For me, as I’m sure for many people, it brings back memories of childhood and schooldays – and there is a slight sadness and poignancy as well as the unstoppable and infectious children’s excitement of the impending day itself.
I have seen Carol in concert halls advertised of course, but not taken much interest until last night when I attended one for the first time. I think I started pretty much at the top of the tree – with an amazing evening with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the choristers from St Albans Cathedral at the Royal Albert Hall. I have to say I was blown away. Admittedly we did have incredible seats in the stalls: right in the middle, with the stage dead ahead, but the acoustics are so perfect it is as if you are sitting in the middle of the sound itself. I will stop now before I’m quoted in Private Eye’s Pseuds Corner but suffice to say – as my friend did – ” It really was something rather special” – an understatement as their two children were singing in the choir – I can only imagine the parental pride of your children being part of such an occasion.
The evening was hosted and conducted by the composer, John Rutter, against a backdrop of choristers and a very fine Christmas tree. The programme was a mix of traditional carols; more modern Christmas songs popularised by films of the day, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite from the Royal Philharmonic
and unusual carols like La Berceuse by Barbara Bell. La Berceuse won a carol competition which John Rutter judged back in 1975 when Barbara Bell was a student – and the composer tracked her down to attend last night’s concert and come on stage at the end of the performance. It’s a lovely piece and I hope now might become more widely heard.
The evening started with the entire concert hall standing to sing Good King Wenceslas – and a very impressive impromptu choir was formed – I’m guessing there were many experienced singers and musicians in the audience as well as on the stage. The audience got the chance to join in with quite a few carols during the evening.
In the remainder of the carols the pure voices of the young Cathedral choristers were set against the adult St Albans Bach choirs. And VOCES8 an octet – introduced strangely as eight soloists – performed a cappella versions of more well known Christmas songs. Even the best known carols though, were given a twist with arrangements by John Rutter which made the carols seem new, as well as being in other ways a very traditional Christmas concert. It struck me as being a mix between Last Night at the Proms and a carol service – with a pub quiz thrown in – yes there really was a quiz as part of the event- and a bit of comedy with the octet dressed as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
The only part of the concert I thought out of place was Lord of the Dance – despite the jolly tune the lyrics are fairly brutal and most obviously about the Crucifixion. John Rutter had put together a very interesting and evocative arrangement of this well known school hymn – but somehow this emphasised the nasty side of the song. If he could see his way to replacing Lord of the Dance with say In the Bleak Midwinter next year then I would be very happy!
We took our children ( 9 and 11) – but as the evening performance ended at about 10.15 there were not many other families there. There was a matinee as well , but that begins at 3pm. It might be an idea to make the matinee at 4.30, enabling local school children at least to attend with their parents – as it is in all other ways a perfect family event.
As I looked around the audience it also occurred to me that going to the Albert Hall may be a particularly good way to celebrate the beginning of the Christmas season, with music people have been singing since childhood, for those who no longer feel spiritually comfortable in church – with the added benefit of course of the physically comfortable seats – which sadly few churches can boast. There’s clearly room for both types of celebration and I certainly won’t be missing the candlelit church services, because I have been to the Albert Hall. But it’s obvious I have been missing out, until now, on a very spectacular way to begin the Christmas festivities.