Look. We need to talk about tradition and authenticity. Because, used in the right way, it’s incredibly powerful. I’m not at my most articulate at the moment but, watching the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s 2017 Noel Noel concert, I was flooded with disparate emotions, and I’d love to tease them apart a little, so please bear with me.
ABO’s Noel Noel has carved itself a spot in the cultural calendar. They’ve been doing this for as long as they’ve been around — more than 25 years. That’s got to qualify as a tradition, right? However, they — and when I say ‘they’, I suppose I really mean the artistic director, Paul Dyer — continue to innovate, to push the boundaries of what is expected. They tickle the tradition, make it giggle and squirm a little. So you get a period instrument orchestra augmented with piano and drum kit accompanying music from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (part one). Or Mendelssohn’s Hark the Herald Angels Sing in a mash-up arrangement by 25 year old Sydneysider Alex Palmer.
Personally, I love it. This is music doing what music does so well: marking an occasion, radiating beauty, providing a space for a bunch of individuals to feel things together. (If I was writing an academic paper I might make up a word like co-emote or something. But let’s not do that.)
It’s also sentimental as all hell, and I love that too, which surprises me, because I’m the first person to get irritated by a film score which yanks my emotions with the subtlety of a 2 year old demanding attention. I hate it when my eyes prick just because the composer cranked the chorus up a semitone. I hate it most when it’s a crap movie that doesn’t deserve my sentiment (yes, The Christmas Prince, I’m thinking of you). I hate to be manipulated.
Sometimes, however, a little bit of sentiment hits the spot. Especially when it’s peppered with interestingly tangy interludes and a side of self-deprecating humour. Especially when it’s performed with such flair and finesse. When it feels so authentic. Like a big hug.
Sorry, there I go, getting sentimental myself. How embarrassing. But what I’m trying to say is that, for all the ABO’s faults — playing fast and loose with notions of authenticity, overegging it on occasion, and even presenting concerts which sound under-rehearsed at the start of a run — I love it. I love the creativity and the invention and the musicality.
Which brings me to the performance. This year’s Noel Noel is a particularly delicious mix of sugar and spice. Opening with the ascetic pleasures of late renaissance polyphony then rolling straight into a pseudo-hymn from Hollywood sets the pattern of new sitting alongside old in comfy companionship. The band — a select crew, but featuring three sackbuts — provides colourful backing to the main event, the Brandenburg Choir and featured soloist Joel Parnis. From the moment the choir begins I am reminded (if I ever forgot) at how outstanding a choral conductor Paul Dyer is. This is not a gush. This is an honest opinion. It’s fascinating to see how Dyer adapts his conducting style to choral repertoire: he draws the sound out, shapes it, moulds it, picks tiny details to highlight. The result is a notably well-blended sound, at all times sitting in the centre of the pitch, bouncing along to a unanimous internal rhythm, and sounding just beautiful. I have to give a big thumbs up to a couple of notes in particular: the last chord of the Palestrina Kyrie, and a chord in the middle of the Gibbons Magnificat went as close to perfection as it is safe to do. Any more perfect, and the gods would be out for blood.
According to Paul Dyer, he first heard tenor Joel Parnis on stage, as Freddy in OA’s My Fair Lady, and immediately started to plan Noel Noel around this young singing actor. He has a terrific voice. It’s not huge, not a Pavarotti style howler, but it shines at the top. Considering he spends most of his time singing amplified in music theatre, it carries across the choir and orchestra with impressive ease. Versatile and vibrant — a perfect match for the ABO.
A final shout out to Alex Palmer, Dyer’s music assistant, who made several of the arrangements and also presented a work of his own, All Nearness Pauses, While a Star Can Grow. Featuring some of the scrunchiest harmonies and closest part singing of the evening, its delicacy and assurance suggests that there’ll be more to come from this ridiculously young, ridiculously talented composer.
You can still catch Noel Noel tonight in Sydney and then in Parramatta, Mosman and Newtown over the next few days, but if you haven’t already got tickets you may have to beg, borrow or steal.