(reviewed by Simon Frith)
At first glance the programme for this year’s Christmas concert by the Hexham Orpheus Choir seemed oddly unfestive. The concert opened with Dvorak’s Mass in D Major, which is a wonderfully buoyant piece of Christian music but not exactly Christmassy. And while the second half of the show featured Christmas carols, these were either unfamiliar or, if well known, sung in unfamiliar arrangements. The concert ended with Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Christmas Carols.
Once the singing started though, all doubts were set aside. On this occasion the Orpheans were joined by the Sele Singers, the eager and remarkably disciplined choir of the Sele First School, directed with great verve by Judith Elliott. The Orpheus Choir’s musical director, Glenn Davis, had the inspired idea of punctuating his choir’s performance of the Dvorak with the Sele Singers’ performance of Czech Christmas carols, and when the audience was invited to join in singing the first number after the interval, the Yorkshire Wassail Song (‘we’ve been awhile a-wandering’), what became clear was that this concert had indeed a festive theme: Christmas music as rich strand of folk music.
The concert’s featured composers, Dvorak and Vaughan Williams, were dedicated to celebrating their national folk styles in their own compositions, and Christmas is still the time of the year when people most enjoy singing together a great variety of old songs that somehow everybody knows. That’s what this concert did so effectively: celebrate the pleasures of singing together. And on a day when the biggest attractions at Hexham’s Christmas Market had been the reindeer and the alpacas, it seemed entirely appropriate that the instrumental interlude in this concert featured creatures from Saint Saens’ Carnival of the Animals, the solemnly pompous Elephant, as impersonated by Tony Abell’s double bass and the Swan, Clarke Slater’s cello imperviously graceful above the paddling feet of Margaret Huntington’s piano accompaniment.
All in all this was a most enjoyable concert, and when all the singers—the two choirs and four adept soloists–came together in the finale of Vaughan Williams’ there was an exhilarating sense of the sheer power of blended human voices. The Orpheus Choir is definitely good at singing loudly!
As the concert ended I don’t think I was the only person in the audience moved by the range of generations on display (eighty years or more between the oldest and the youngest singer). I wonder how many of the Sele children are future members of the Orpheus Choir, will be passing on these same songs to their children and grand children in the years to come.