A yuletide blend of musical excellence and the joy that is the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra's trademark.
Soloist Madison Nonoa with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra. Photograph via Melbourne Recital Centre.
A well established Christmas tradition on the south-east coast, the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra's annual Noël! Noël! concert returned with another program of Baroque treasures interspersed with slightly newer, more familiar Yuletide favourites and a few contemporary surprises. It was a chance for their resident choir to really shine, and a talented young New Zealand soprano to step onto the international stage.
The concert began with a sense of ceremony and festive enchantment, as the Brandenburg Choir filed onto the stage while singing the 16th century hymn Wachet auf! They took their place under three huge, suspended Christmas wreaths, behind the pared-back orchestra that then launched into the anonymously composed 17th century Sonata à 9. It's not a Christmas tune as such, but the prominent brass and percussion set the evening's celebratory Baroque tone: the aural equivalent of massed gold and scarlet decorations.
Voices were then front and centre again, most notably soloist Madison Nonoa's bell-like soprano, for Once, in Royal David's City. With a voice that displays both power and a gentleness of expression, this 23-year-old is one to watch – as one could hardly fail to do during Noël! Noël! as she went from pretty black frock decorated in Christmas colours to elegant black gown with golden bodice to a dreamy swathe of white.
Next was the belated welcome from conductor Paul Dyer, the Brandenburg's ever-smiling mastermind who positively beamed as he revealed his favourite turkey recipe before calling upon trumpeter Rainer Saville to introduce his newly acquired, be-tassled instrument. Yes, Dyer and the Brandenburgers were, somehow, even more relaxed and fun-loving than usual.
Another 15 works followed in this 90-minute concert, which flew by in part because everything on this beguiling, intelligently composed program was quite short. Most of the highlights were vocal works, as Nonoa consistently impressed and the choir sang with beautiful balance and, at times, a force that belied its size. The Spheres, from Ola Gjeilo's contemporary Sunrise Mass, was like ethereal voices from deep space, while Silent Night truly was heavenly peace: Nonoa, accompanied by Tommie Andersson's exquisite theorbo, sang in German, then Maori, before concluding in English, all with a remarkable delicacy of voice and expression (and hand movements for the Maori verse).
Other highlights included an instrumental version of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, which saw the various sections of the band, particularly the sackbuts (early trombones) and percussionist Brian Nixon, playfully sparring. Nixon was prominent throughout the concert, deftly delivering shimmering sounds with xylophone, tambourines, bells, cymbals and chimes (the latter seemed overdone to my ears, but probably only because chimes have been cheapened by bad TV and advertising; I tried to imagine their magical effect centuries ago, in small candlelit churches on cold, snowy nights).
The concert concluded with a rousing rendition of O Come, All Ye Faithful. A brief reprise of this hymn, in which the audience were invited to join in as the choir filed out, was all that was offered in terms of encore. Of all the concerts of the year, this one should have been the occasion when the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra gave a little more. However, considering they had presented the same program only a few hours before, and will do so 12 times over 12 days in seven towns and cities, it is perhaps surprising they were able to give as much as they did, both in terms of musical excellence and the joy that is their trademark.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Australian Brandenburg Orchestra
Conductor, harpsichord: Paul Dyer
Soprano: Madison Nonoa
Melbourne Recital Centre, 10 December, 5.30pm and 7.30pm.
Also concerts in Sydney, Mosman, Paddington, Wollongong, Parramatta and Newtown, 9-20 December 2016.