Sunday 13th December. St Edmundsbury Cathedral.
BBC Radio Suffolk's Annual Carol Concert in aid of Children in Need
Radio Suffolk's Christmas Concert returned to St Edmundsbury Cathedral in Bury St Edmunds this year, and provided a musical celebration of Christmas with readings from BBC Radio Suffolk presenters with performances from a host of local talent and some robust singing of our favourite carols, all in aid of Children In Need.
We were honoured to be joining the St Edmundsbury Cathedral Choir and The St Cecilia Chorale together with The Seckford Ensemble, a quintet of fine Brass Instrumentalists, and a young folk-inspired duo with the delightful title, Honey and the Bear.
After a good warm up and some last minute reminders on the finer detail of our technique, we had our first experience of Cathedral singing with a sound check for the BBC Radio Suffolk engineers and a seating check for logistics.
As we expected, the acoustic qualities of this magnificent building were extraordinary, the reverb from some of our fuller chords taking several seconds to die away. Hearing the other parts was a bit of a problem for all of us though, because, although there was some amplification, there was no fold back, so we had to rely totally on Gaynor’s detailed direction. Imagine our surprise to hear applause after our first carol - and this was only a sound check!
Back to the practice room in time for a bite to eat before a run through of the congregational carols, so that we would know some of the detail, like singing unison for the verses with descant, like not singing verses that were for “The Choir” only, and like the usual solo, soprano and alto verses of Once in Royal David’s City. It did take a few moments for us to get used to our “new” conductor, James Thomas, Musical Director at St Edmundsbury Cathedral.
His direction was light on detail, presumably because his choral scholars are all well‐drilled, but he did request a “T” in Christmas, as well as correction of some other other notable Barbershop “errors”!
Having topped and tailed each of the carols, we were dismissed until our alloted start time for a congregation warm up. As we approached the stage again, someone was heard to comment “perfect timing!” Our convention discipline has paid off once again.
The Concert proper was started with a brief address from The Very Reverend Dr Frances Ward, Dean of St Edmundsbury, following it with a moment of silence and prayer for those in need this Christmas. She went on to introduce Radio Suffolk presenter, Nick Risby, Master of Ceremonies for the evening. The concert followed the customary pattern, with alternating readings and carols, punctuated by performances from each of the guest acts. Of these, first up was a spirited rendition of “And The Glory” from Handel’s Messiah, followed by the contemporary work “In the Stillness” by Sally Beamish. Their set was rounded off in style with the ever popular Ding Dong Merrily on High.
Honey and The Bear took to the stage after Mark Murphy’s offering, A Politically Correct Christmas, a satirical work from the pen of the American Mirthologist, Dr Steven Sultanoff. Sadly, the amplification did no favours for the singing duo, an over‐loud bass and poorly balanced output rather spoiled the otherwise charming performance of Ocean. Their potential was, perhaps, more evident in ‘God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen’ but they really do need a sound‐person to help them set up in such difficult accoustics.
Good King Wenceslas was suitably raucous, especially in the Gentlemen's verses. Maybe something to do with 20 strong Barbershoppers being unleashed in the back stalls. We were told to save our voices for later - Ah well! It was followed by the delightful ditty, ‘I Keep My Snowman in the Freezer’ by Yorkshire poet, Ian McMillan.
The sound of a cathedral organ at full volume is something to be wondered at, and Dan Soper, ADM, really pulled out all the stops for Von Himmel Hoch (from Heaven on High) by Garth Edmundson, an prolific American composer from the middle of the last century. Despite his origin, his musical education came from Leipzig, home of organ music and J. S. Bach. This piece was, I think, an artistic joke, especially the last-but-one chord!
The echoes of Edmundson had scarcely died away by the time the traditional story of the Christmas Spider had finished, and then it was our turn. The silence, broken only by the faint purr of the pitch pipe, was quite eerie. Somehow the Lullaby lyrics of The Coventry Carol felt very small and vulnerable. But we held our nerve, gave Herod almost as good as he deserved, tapered our final phrase, and sent this lovely old song back into the silence.
The silence of a cathedral, like many old churches, is somehow full of all the things that have gone before, and I couldn't help thinking of all the other songs and prayers that must have assailed the old walls in centuries past. With a carol like Silent Night, it is difficult to control those emotions, but we managed it, and, by the sound of the applause, the congregation appreciated it too. Of course, White Christmas is completely different. Unashamedly American and commercial, it plays to a completely different set of values, and gave us a chance to demonstrate our preferred skills with this Tom Gentry arrangement. A quick blast of O Come All Ye Faithful, and we were all released to join friends and families in the audience, or grab a quick drink to soothe our parched throats.
The second half opened with Unto Us is Born a Son, a familiar tune, but with, for some, unfamiliar words, especially the latin in the last verse.
Members of St Cecilia Chorale in rehearsal with the massed choirs
St Cecilia Chorale takes children from schools all around Bury, and acts as a training choir for The Cathedral Choir. They performed Joseph and the Angel, and Away in a Manger, both confident and competent in their singing, but what a pity they are so tied to their music!
Joseph and The Angel
Maybe, performing every week in church as they do, there is just too much to learn.
Lesley Dolphin probably knows most of Charlie Haylock's poems only too well, but A Suffolk Christmas was the obvious choice for this event.
Then, for a complete change of tone, The Seckford Brass Ensemble performed three classic pieces, beginning with Sleigh Ride, Leroy Anderson’s glorious evocation of snow clad landscapes and horse powered transport. How Far is it to Bethlehem and Santa Claus is Coming to Town completed the set. It was good to hear them in full performance mode, although we also enjoyed their skillful playing in the congregational carols.
O Little Town of Bethlehem and the reading of the Nativity from St Luke’s Gospel, both familiar pieces, were followed by a return visit from The Cathedral Choir who provided another excerpt ‐ Glory to God ‐ from Handel’s Messiah, The Angel Gabriel, and The Sussex Carol. The Choir also sang Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas all the way through before the congregation was allowed to have a go.
Radio Suffolk presenter, James Hazell, took the opportunity to photograph the congregation before reading “The Big Test” after which there was an unexpected bonus for us. Something had gone wrong with the recording of our first set, so we were asked to come back to perform our first and third numbers again. What an excellent way to reinforce our presence, and what a wonderful compliment on our performance.
The concert was rounded off nicely by James Thomas conducting the assembled choruses and congregation in the full version of The Twelve Days of Christmas, with a little help from Pudsey!
The VIPS and ST Eds Cathedral Choristers after the performance.
James Thomas and members of The Seckford Brass Ensemble in foreground.
The VIPs would like to acknowledge the help and support provided by Lesley Dolphin, Presenter, and Kate Arkell, Producer, for Radio Suffolk, whose help and support made our appearance possible. And, of course, our thanks go to James Thomas and his Team at St Edmundsbury for their musical and practical encouragement in welcoming us to this prestigious venue.
We hope everyone enjoyed it as much as we did.