Review of the Christmas concert held in Hathersage Memorial Hall on 15th December 2018
A Tenor’s View of Things A Concert of Two Halves. The second half of the evening was just what a carol concert ought to be.
There were half a dozen of the carols that we seem to have known for ever, sung with confidence and vigour by audience/congregation and choir. These were interspersed with carols less well-known, or not known at all, bringing a continuing freshness to the evening. There was a leavening of secular items; The Twelve Days of Christmas received perhaps the most enthusiastic applause of the night. Absent friends included Jingle Bells and Away in a Manger. A joyful experience.
The first half was different.
Unlike the conventional carol concert, the Manchester Carols, is a single work, with movements in a specified order. It has a choir, soloists, an instrumental component throughout and prose narrative, the elements cohere to create a balanced whole, it is almost an oratorio. The audience can both enjoy the individual movements as free-standing carols and respond to the total package as a complex whole.
The voices of two young, skillful and confident soloists, Ella Moran and Henry Reavey, blended beautifully with those of the choir.
The work offers a totally fresh way of telling the Nativity story. The melodies are beautiful but melancholy. There is a haunting pessimism in the work. Trees offers a dialogue between Joseph and a list of trees, drawing out the role of each species in Christ’s life, from the innocent family business of cradle and child’s toy to the crown of thorns and the cross. As the dialogues roll inexorably on, the sheer implacability of Christ’s destiny bears down on us through the insistent repetition of the structure.
The section A Miracle departs from the old, old story to remind us of life’s present-day evils and to tell us that the resolution of these evils would indeed be a miracle. The opening section, Mirabile Dictu, (wonderful to relate) asserts the truth of the Nativity and its place in our lives but questions that very assertion through lines like “we wish, we wish to tell it well”. Every repetition of “I saw an angel” asserts belief but hints at doubt. When Mary speaks to the Christ child, and to us, she speaks of an escapist and unreal response to the catastrophe of her life.
The movements are in dialogue with one another. The doom-laden Trees, for example, with its solitary protagonist, can be seen as a counterweight to Christmas Flowers, a movement which also uses a catalogue of species approach but uses it to show us a confident, joyful community of belief.
The Manchester Carols is a thought-provoking work which rewards frequent re-listening. It would be good to see it as a regular component in the repertoire of the choir.