Henley Choral Society | Sainte-Marie Church | Saturday 11 December
TWO years after their last outing, the Henley Choral Society Christmas concert has turned out to be a real extravaganza.
Youth choirs Henley and the Onyx Brass Ensemble were in attendance and the repertoire was a wonderful mix of seasonal favorites interspersed with lesser-known pieces.
These range from the 15th century to arrangements by the contemporary American a cappella group, Pentatonix.
There were also Christmas carols from the audience in which voices, brass and organist Henry Metcalfe enthusiastically joined forces to (almost) raise the roof.
The first was Handel’s majestic Zadok the priest, composed for the coronation of King George II in 1727 and recognized by its early introduction, developing through an elongated crescendo before the choir erupts into a happy song.
Originally an orchestration, this was delivered very impressively by organ and brass before culminating with the full six-part choir singing “God save the King”. An exciting start.
There was even more complexity in Samuel Scheidt’s work A child is born and that of Orlando Lassus Omnes de Saba, both for eight-part choir and beautifully enriched with the accompanying brass parts.
The fresh young voices of the Junior Youth Choir starting with Henry Darke In the middle of the gloomy winter – commonly referred to as the “dark” setting of two popular versions of this Christmas carol – contrasted well with the elegant cantabile of the adults who joined them, alongside sensitively nuanced copper phrases.
The juniors continued with Season ring, Mary’s boy and I want a hippo for Christmas, each displaying superb diction as well as portraying the joyful elements through a series of actions – or “choralography,” as their new director Alex Haigh informed us.
The seniors gave a very gentle interpretation of The angel Gabriel between their sophisticated arrangements of Pentatonix.
Later, the two youth choirs sang an energetic Fireflies by Owl City and Bernard’s version of Winter wonders. Youth choir accompanist Anita D’Attellis provided excellent support with her neat and elegant playing.
The instrumental interludes brought additional pleasure. Onyx Brass gave a sublime account of Powell’s arrangement of Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland, a piece he wrote for Advent, while Henry Metcalfe’s colorful organ solo – that of Leroy Anderson Sleigh ride – made the public move in time.
Two other choices of choir, the somewhat melancholy Carol from Coventry, sung a cappella, and the appeasement of Berlioz The shepherd’s farewell, shows a wonderful musicality and a skilful mix of parts.
The final piece, bringing together all the singers, was the Christmas Cantata, a work in three short movements by the American composer of the 20th century, Daniel Pinkham.
A difficult piece to perform, comprising a hybrid of old and new compositional techniques, but nonetheless, under the able direction of conductor Peter Asprey, we enjoyed syncopated jazz chords, a mysterious Gregorian plainsong sustained by dark pedal notes and a lively “Gloria in” Excelsis Deo “dance finale.
All in all, it was a great musical celebration of the season and, if the audience weren’t in a festive mood beforehand, they most certainly felt the Christmas spirit upon returning home.
• The Henley Choral Society meets on Mondays at 7:30 p.m. at the d: two community center in Upper Market Place. There are no auditions and new members are welcome. The next concert is that of Mendelssohn Elijah on Saturday April 2 at the Great Hall of the University of Reading.