The first Christmas concert of the season comes from the Australian Chamber Choir with the direction of Douglas Lawrence. Combining a selection of shorter Baroque pieces celebrating Christmas and the festive spirit, the choir filled the crypt of St Mary’s Cathedral for an afternoon.
Underneath St Mary’s Cathedral in the heart of Sydney’s CBD, a community gathered in the crypt, under sandstone arches and atop a bright and intricate patterned floor. The space felt both simple and beautiful in the way humble religious spaces can be. A few display cases showed off historical artefacts or stories from the cathedral while a small organ and large painting in a classical gold frame marked the front of the space. There was an atmosphere of community with audience members gathering beforehand and at interval to chat about the program and holiday plans. Or the more peaceful audience members who wandered between columns and admired the crypt’s stained glass windows, it was the calm before the mayhem of Christmastime.
The program saw a wide display of classical works from Bach, Hammerschmidt, Handl, Schutz, and more as examples of the period’s interest in composition competitions. Great writers, composers, and musicians wrote and rewrote carols to attract attention and pique the general population’s interest in their work. That led to some rather vague compositions, hoping to appeal to as many people as possible in one go.
Rather than the modern traditional carols that most readily come to mind when thinking about Christmas music, these pieces were from the Baroque period and performed almost exclusively in German or Latin. The foreign language added a bit of spookiness to the otherwise clean and austere atmosphere of the crypt but each piece varied enough to keep the concert from becoming monotonous.
A crowd favourite was one of the longer compositions from Bartholomaus Gesius and Michael Praetorius titled Ein Kind Geborn Zu Bethlehem (A Child Born in Bethlehem). With a longer length, the song was able to develop a narrative with a faster pace. Of course, based on the story of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, the song allowed the choir to demonstrate their wide vocal range from the piercing highs to the buzzing lows.
A solo performance from soprano singer Elspeth Bawden was a treat of the concert. Her crystal clear vocals reverberated through a still room and maintaining a consistently strong tone against the organ’s hum. The piece, O Jesulein Suss (O Sweet Little Jesus) by Johann Sebastian Bach was another rendition of Jesus’s birth but with bold repetition of round O vowels forming a steady beat throughout the story.
The choir as a whole, with musical director Douglas Lawrence, gave a powerful performance of all pieces and an impressive concert overall. Their vocals move expertly smoothly between sharpness and velvety vibrations from the bass vocalists. The organ accompaniment added nice distinction between pieces but was almost unnecessary for underlying instrumental direction. Though, the organ was appreciated for the concert’s two organ solos including a pastorale for organ from Bach.
With voices like these, most programs would be mesmerising, but that detracts not at all from the unusual take on Christmas carols from A Baroque Christmas.
A Baroque Christmas will be running until December 9th. For more information click here.