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‘For unto us a Child is born’ – Messiah Highlights and other Christmas Favourites

Cantorum’s Christmas Concert 2014 split into two distinct halves. The first was taken up with the entire ‘Christmas’ section of Handel’s Messiah, from the opening Sinfonia right through unbroken to the chorus ‘His yoke is easy’.

We were very pleased to welcome Akina Strings, who provided an excellent quartet alongside Jozef Janik, our Deputy Music Director, on harpsichord continuo. This intimate chamber instrumentation worked well with an experimental placement of the choir: nestled back into the space behind the arch in Holy Trinity, Cookham, rather than in front of it. Acoustically, this new arrangement seemed to ‘chime’ perfectly with the church’s design, although it involved some sacrifice of audience sight lines. Obviously, sound has priority, and we believe the arrangement made an exciting new use of the building. The choir really loved the opportunity to sing such a substantial portion of Messiah again; the piece was still fresh in our collective memory—we performed the whole work as recently as 2012. Indeed, the four sections (SATB) all felt delightfully at home with the coloratura lines and delicate vocal ornamentation. And this time, owing to our on-going vocal development, we were proud to provide all the soloists from within the choir, fielding nine individual voices (although one or two adjustments to the listings shown in the programme had to be made on the night to cope with seasonal colds).

After an interval with free mulled wine (another first at this venue!), the second half of the concert featured some very popular carols and a few less familiar ones. In particular, the choir revisited the lovely piece written for us in 1988 by Ian Hillier: a setting of Thomas Hardy’s poem The Oxen. The other ‘rarity’ was The Huron Carol, Canada’s oldest Christmas song, written in the seventeenth century by Jean de Brebeuf, a Jesuit missionary living among the Huron people of Ontario. De Brebeuf reinterprets the Christmas story in native American terms, and the carol is widely known in Canada. We very much enjoyed singing this arrangement for SATB by Denise Bacon.

Our audiences at Christmas have recently grown used to singing along to the glorious accompaniment of the virtuoso quintet ‘Sounding Brass’. This year there was no brass because of the nature of the programme; but the audience had three favourite carols to join in, sang very lustily and donated very generously to the collection for this year’s chosen charities The Neuroblastoma Society and The Berkshire Autistic Society. So they must have enjoyed the evening as much as we did!