The combined choral concert this year brought together the School’s Junior and Senior choirs along with the Cranleigh Choral Society and many of the professional musicians known to the School under the banner of the Merriman Concert Orchestra.
The packed audience were invited to hear “the real story of Santa Claus” in the first half as told by Benjamin Britten’s attention-grabbing cantata, “Saint Nicolas”. This work honours the Christmas saint and charts the story of Nicolas’ life and achievements – some real but mostly legendary. The piece was an excellent choice as Britten composed it with both professional musicians and capable amateur singers in mind; although this work is not as straightforward as that performance note might suggest with all choirs having been meticulously rehearsed all term by Marcus Pashley, and ably accompanied by Phil Scriven and Margaret Roberts as répetiteurs.
As demonstrated by many of his other works, Britten had an outstanding ability to write music that singers could engage with and learn easily whilst under the surface containing quite sophisticated and demanding material. The choirs met these technical challenges with superb confidence and enthusiasm, perhaps best emphasised in the dramatic fourth movement depicting Nicolas’ sea voyage to Palestine. Here the choir painted a vivid picture of a storm with hissing lightening and crashing waves accompanied by piano (Margaret Roberts & Richard Saxel), percussion (Seb Guard & Tom Hollister, OC) and held strings led by Kevin Weaver, all demonstrating Britten’s ability to write very dramatic sacred music.
We were very fortunate to have Philip Sheffield, a specialist in contemporary music, sing the role of Nicolas for us. His stunning, lyrical performance showed great stamina and versatility; Britten notes that the “solo tenor part is no amateur matter” and Philip was able to convey with real clarity the struggles of Nicolas the person as his life unfolded through the stories. Three Form 6 pupils from Cranleigh Prep School (Ben, Cameron and Henry) also joined the performance, playing the roles of the “pickled boys” whom Nicolas brings back to life after a particularly gruesome death at the hands of a butcher in times of famine! Their unison “Alleluias” as they walked down the aisle brought a haunting yet sparkling quality to the movement and there was a further solo opportunity in “The Birth of Nicolas” to portray the young Nicolas which Cameron’s pure treble tones were ideal for.
This was a fine and thoroughly memorable performance for all – even the audience were required to participate in the congregational anthems – and the ‘catchy’ melodies could still be heard as the audience paused for the first mince pies of the season!
The second half of the concert turned to more light-hearted, festive repertoire but appropriately began on this Advent Sunday with Christopher Brown’s orchestration of Wesley’s hymn “Lo, He comes with clouds descending” where the audience were once again invited to participate. The brass section of the Merriman Concert Orchestra was out in force as the choir and orchestra performed extracts from Handel’s Messiah and Phillip Sheffield shone once again as the soloist for the tenor Recitative “Comfort ye, my people” and Aria “Every valley shall be exalted”. GCSE Music pupils were able to hear one of their set works brought to life in the Chorus “And the Glory of the Lord” with Philip Scriven moving from the organ to the harpsicord before the orchestra performed Prokofiev’s “Troika” taken from his score for Lieutenant Kijé. This piece is instantly recognisable from films and documentaries of Christmas scenes – often involving snow, of which more later – and featured lots of visually intriguing percussion techniques which captured the pupils’ imagination.
No Christmas concert seems complete without music by John Rutter and the choirs next gave a sensitive performance of “Candlelight Carol” with a lyrical flute part played by Ruth Williams accompanied by harp and strings which returned the focus to the nativity message before the full orchestra romped through Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride” and “A Christmas Festival” to help everyone begin to feel very seasonal indeed.
The last programmed item was the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah, a very well known and loved piece, which despite coming at the end of a long evening was performed by the choirs and orchestra with gusto and great enjoyment but as the audience’s applause continued there was time for just one more piece – Goff Richard’s arrangement “A Merry Little Christmas”. This medley featured extracts from Jingle Bells, Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas, Winter Wonderland, Let it snow and I’m dreaming of a white Christmas which provided a final opportunity for Phillip Sheffield to show a much lighter side and for the tech theatre crew to once again delight in ‘dusting’ the conductor with snow!
This was a most enjoyable concert at the beginning of a very full Christmas musical calendar and contained the perfect blend of repertoire that included all sections of the community as well as reminding us in Eric Crozier’s words from St Nicolas to “ask for less and offer more” in this season, which the musicians and all involved in the concert certainly did.