There’s no better antidote to the nuttiness of the end-of-year, end-of-term, end-of-everything scramble than 90 minutes of music from the Australian Brandenburg team. Their annual Noel Noel concert has become a permanent fixture in so many people’s calendars that this year the number of times they perform this show is into double figures. And, as ever, the unquenchable energy of their artistic director Paul Dyer infuses the evening with a freshness and almost childlike sense of wonder. Humbugs and Grinches have no place here, and glitter and tat and dad jokes and glorious singing are all part of the joy.
Singing is, of course, central to Noel Noel, and with it the Brandenburg Choir, an occasional but long-standing band of hand-picked singers directed and driven and cajoled and coralled by Dyer. Their opening salvo, ‘Wachet auf!’, in lusty unison, would stir even a school-shy teenager from his or her doona lair, and they skip through the traditional carols with crisp, bouncy rhythm. Meanwhile, there are some superior vocal chops on display, in works like Ola Gjeilo’s ‘The Spheres’ from his 2007 work, Sunrise Mass. Smudgy note clusters, bruised chords, textures which fade in and out like a tapestry woven of different yarns. Rather lovely.
Paul Dyer has an impressive track record for his choice of soloist at Noel Noel (including Taryn Fiebig, Sara Macliver and Max Riebl.) This year’s is another doozy. Madison Nonoa is a soprano of Samoan-New Zealand and European descent, and a recent graduate of the University of Auckland. Her performances, to date, have all been in her home country, New Zealand, but that is surely about to change with this, her Australian debut. Nonoa’s voice promises many different colours: she sings ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ with a tight, choirboy clarity and a slightly feverish vibrato; in her ‘Ave Maria’ (the Vladimir Vavilov aka Caccini one) her voice opened up, with the long, lyrical lines sounding blissfully easy (although I’m sure they were anything but). In Eriks Esenvalds ‘O Salutaris Hostia’ the bright sheen of her voice contrasted with a solo chorister, singing in duet. And in ‘Amazing Grace’ we got a hint of a richer, deeper quality to her tone, a clue as to where this still very young voice might be heading.
Accompanying the choir and Nonoa was a select ensemble of strings, brass, keyboards and percussion. In fact, it was not so much an orchestra as a collection of soloists, most of whom had their featured moment in the limelight as Dyer explored the full palette of tone colours on stage. So a baroque trumpet (Leanne Sullivan) had the prized first verse solo of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ while the generous array of sackbuts — early slide trombones — came to the fore in ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’, and Rittler’s Ciaccona a 7 slid deliciously in and out of improvisation over a simple ground bass.
Beyond the singing and playing, a quick mention for the unsung heros of Noel Noel: the arrangers. Some of them we already know: David Willcocks, for example, with his unforgettable descant countermelody for ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’, or Felix Gruber, who arranged his own tune, originally for two voices and guitar, to become the choral version of ‘Silent Night’ so beloved by all. Others try to slip by unnoticed: Tristan Coelho, award-winning Sydney composer, who put together a spicy, wistful version of sixteenth century Spanish composer Luis de Narvaez’s ‘Con que la lavare’; British composer and arranger Jim Clements, who has worked with Ben Folds to create a scrunchy, delicate a capella version of ‘The Luckiest’ which the Brandenburg choir delivered with touching intimacy; and film/tv composer and music director Alex Palmer, who fashioned stylish, fresh and beautiful new arrangements of traditional and more recent compositions. His handling of close harmonies in the Vavilov sent tingles down the spine and his take on ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman’ was an inventive instrumental break which, surely, must have melted even the most determined Scrooge.
Noel Noel has five more performances: at City Recital Hall on Saturday 17 December at 5pm and 7pm, at St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral tonight, 15 December at 7pm, at St Patricks in Parramatta next Monday at 7.30pm, and at Newtown’s St Stephen’s Anglican Church on Tuesday. Highly recommended.
And a quick plug for my stuff: I’m writing a book on the Dartington International Summer School of Music. It’s called Sanctuary, and it’s due to be published by Unbound in 2018. If you enjoy my writing I urge you to visit my author page, take a look at the short video and pledge to buy the book! Many thanks, and best wishes for Christmas and New Year.