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Ceremony of Carols review
20 December 2013

Despite it being mid-December and the John Lewis advert being almost constantly played on television (not to mention all the other Christmas adverts, reality TV finales, seasonal specials and compilation programmes), there had been only a brief appearance by any snow and I was not feeling particularly festive.  It was in this frame of mind that I made my way to the Strathpeffer Pavilion on Saturday night to witness Dingwall and District Choral Society’s winter concert entitled ‘A Celebration with Carols’.  The evening began with Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, presumably as a nod to the composer’s centenary, where the choir was accompanied on the harp by Erica Sinclair. 
The Ceremony is a demanding work with many tricky patterns of both melody and harmony, but the choir were determined not to let this put them off.  There is no Rose is for the most part a gentle lullaby sung by the female section of the chorus.  The singing was both sweet and gentle yet held within it a core of strength that blossomed during the Gloria.  In contrast, This little babe, far from being a gentle lullaby, is a frighteningly tempestuous call to arms which the singers took to with abandon.  Such a contrast is always a lovely thing to here as it shows an ability from a choir to do more than simply read the notes on the page.  Soloists for various movements were drawn from the body of the chorus, not even leaving their positions to perform.  While I can understand the reasoning behind this decision it did leave a vast space between the soloists and the harpist although, to be fair, this didn’t seem to cause any problems aside from that of the audience member not knowing where to look.  The Spring Carol in particular was beautiful with the two soprano voices blending smoothly in compliment to the delicate playing of the harp.  Erica’s playing throughout was magnificent.  Highly technical passages were handled with seeming ease and yet she was always sympathetic to the choir in her accompaniment.
The second half started with a splash of colour provided by tinsel, Santa hats and all kinds of festive decorations adorning the members of the choir themselves which gave the hint that the second half was to be less ‘serious’ than the first.  As is common, the audience were encouraged to join in with some carols and it was nice to see the conductor join the choir for these rather than attempt to conduct two groups of voices, one in front and one behind; no doubt an uncomfortably tricky thing to do!  The programme was cleverly constructed as, rather than try and instantly blow us all away with how Christmassy they could be, the choir started with more traditional Christmas sounds from times past then progressed forwards in time through the intriguingly titled Musicological journey through the twelve days of Christmas.  This, it transpires, was a kind of seasonal version of name that tune as each day was written in the style of a different composer. Some were easier to spot than others;  Bach, Vivaldi and Wagner to name but a few. By this time it was evidently clear that both choir and audience were enjoying themselves thoroughly.  A spirited rendition of The cowboy carol and a 1950’s style arrangement of Rudolph the red nosed reindeer made us eager for more which the enthusiastic young conductor, John Thomson, was happy to provide with a rendition of The Schneewalter that left the entire audience in a suitably cheered Christmas spirit. 
A very enjoyable concert all round and I look forward to May when the programme promises us Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle; a personal favourite!

JM






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