The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s Noël! Noël! has become as much a fixture of the Christmas concert season as the inevitable string of Messiahs sprinkled across the country each December. Presenting distinctive arrangements of popular Christmas carols alongside more unusual fare, the concert has become a yuletide tradition for many concertgoers. An important part of Brandenburg Artistic Director Paul Dyer’s winning formula includes a special guest: this year’s star was Australian tenor Joel Parnis – fresh from an impressive run as Freddy in the Sydney return season of My Fair Lady – who brought plenty of musical theatre flair to proceedings.
Joel Parnis and the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra. Photos © Steven Godbee.
But the concert began with the kind of music for which the Brandenburgs are better known, a trio of sackbuts bringing a warm, earthy ensemble sound to Palestrina’s Alma Redemptoris Mater, gilded by Matt Bruce’s bright violin. The Australian Brandenburg Choir soon took over, bringing clear toned precision to the Renaissance composer’s Kyrie from Missa Gabriel Archangelus, the four parts interweaving and overlapping before coalescing into joyous harmonic resolution beneath the silver yoga-ball baubles hanging from the City Recital Hall ceiling.
This year’s Noël! Noël! saw the return of many well-loved favourites: Parnis brought his bright-edged tenor to Once in Royal David’s City as well as O Holy Night (in the original French) and Silent Night – in German, French and English – and a sing-a-long encore of O Come Ye Faithful. But there was plenty of new material as well, with Parnis delivering a tongue-in-cheek reimagining of The Twelve Days of Christmas (with lyrics by comedian Mark Humphries) while the choir gave a sweet account of Alexandre Desplat’s My Love is Always Here, written for the scene in the film Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1 in which the young wizard visits the cemetery where his parents are buried.
Joel Parnis and the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra.
Parnis also gave fine accounts of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas (playfully backed by the men of the Brandenburg Choir) and David Foster and Linda Thompson-Jenner’s My Grown-up Christmas List (well known for versions by the likes of Barbra Streisand, Michael Bublé and Aretha Franklin) but it was his rendition of My Prayer (Bring Him Home) from Les Misérables that was the highlight. Parnis floated delicately in the upper register early on before letting his sound open up with stirring energy.
Australian Brandenburg Orchestra librarian Alex Palmer – whose arrangements contribute as much to the Christmas flavour of Noël! Noël! each year as the programming – conducted his own choral work All Nearness Pauses, While a Star Can Grow, a text by EE Cummings set with glimmering dissonance and clipped phrases handled deftly by the choir. The choir also excelled in John Rutter’s brilliantly bubbling a cappella arrangement of Deck the Hall with its chiming, sleigh-bell vocals.
The band managed to infuse Orlando di Lasso’s gently hoedown-like Matona Mia Cara with plenty of sauciness – making up for the absence of entendre-rich lyrics with their playing, the sackbuts once more in the spotlight – while works by Gibbons, Rutter, Fauré and Gjeilo (the choir resplendent in his Pleni Sunt Caeli from Sunrise Mass) filled out the concert’s more serious side.
This was another fine Christmas feast from the Brandenburgs and while the balance of pop and musical theatre pieces sat slightly oddly with the choral works in the programme at times – last year’s Noël! Noël! (now released as an album on ABC Classics) leaned a little more to mysticism and ceremony – this was a concert chock-full of Christmas cheer and a great way to ring in the festive season.
The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra performs Noël! Noël! in Wollongong December 14, at City Recital Hall, Sydney, December 16, Parramatta December 18, Mosman December 19 and Newtown December 20.