Christmas Concert 2016 – Review

Published in the Henley Standard

Review by John Evans

It’s that time of the year again. A real dilemma for musical directors; choosing a “different” programme. Fortunately there are plenty of people creating new works for Christmas time. And one of those is John Rutter. Famed for his choral works, he is a very busy man, conducting choirs, making albums and composing new pieces.

The choice for this concert was Mass of the Children which was first performed at Carnegie Hall in New York, as a specially commissioned piece. It’s also different as a children’s choir is used as a central part of the work rather than an add-on. John Rutter doesn’t write easy pieces and some of his melodies are challenging, even for adult choirs. So this was a demanding task but an interesting choice.

The South Chiltern Choral Society were joined by Hawkedon Primary School Choir from Reading with piano accompaniment from Ian Westley and conducted by Paul Burke, who has now established himself as their new musical director. The hall at Chiltern Edge School was resplendent with a starry wall and coloured lights. I’m not sure that the choir favoured the ever changing colours but it looked very good.

The Mass of the Children is a traditional Latin Mass with some English texts included, such as William Blake’s The Lamb and prayers by Thomas Ken, a seventeenth century bishop. It features soprano and baritone soloists for some of the sequences. The baton goes from children’s choir to adult choir to soloists and back and this interchange was handled seamlessly.

It was an engaging piece of work. The children brought a freshness and enthusiasm to the music. They did extremely well, given that they had to sing sometimes in Latin, split into parts and combine with the adult choir. There were some tuning issues in places but that did not deter from the overall effect. I particularly liked the setting of Blake’s The Lamb as part of the Agnus Dei section, performed by the children. Kathryn Clarke and David Partridge, conductors of the children’s choir are to be congratulated for this initiative. I did not see one child who seemed concerned by the difficult music. I also liked the soprano soloist Hannah Fraser-Mackenzie, who had a beautiful voice and superb control, never dominating the choir but soaring above the accompaniment. And the adult choir sang very well, with good diction and control.

In the second half there was a selection of carols and Christmas music from both choirs. One of these pieces was composed by choir member Anne Eustace and another by Paul Burke. Again a good example of ensuring that the concert wasn’t just a repetition of old stuff.

The audience went away happy, fortified by mince pies and wine but having had a pleasant afternoon with good music.

John Evans

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