Christmas Music with the Choir of St. John’s Cambridge, Director Andrew Nethsingha, as part of the 822nd Lunchtime Organ Concert with Thomas Trotter: Symphony Hall Birmingham, 5th December 2022 5***** David Gray & Paul Gray

This short lunchtime concert of Christmas choral music was comprised of a good mix of the familiar, the familiar seen from an unfamiliar angle, and the relatively unfamiliar. That is to say, traditional carols, old texts we know and love dressed in new music, and new carols that we may not have heard before.

Sitting somewhere in the middle of all of that was John Gardiner’s setting of Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day. This is an old text in modern dress which, by dint of its catchy tune and rhythmic vitality, has become something of a classic; known and loved by, if not all, then many. It’s a deceptively simple piece with an obvious charm. Under the surface, however, it’s a more complex animal full of shifting time signatures, syncopation and overlapping melodic phrases. Conductor, Andrew Nethsingha gave us a shaped and carefully pointed reading and the choir responded to his forensically precise conducting to deliver a performance which excavated all of this wonderful detail.

Precision and attention to detail here largely set the scene for what was to follow. Symphony Hall was at its most resonant setting, with all its acoustic chambers fully open to give us the full cathedral experience. This complemented the choir’s full bodied tone. Unlike many actual cathedrals, however, sloppy singing has nowhere to hide here, no matter how rich the reverb. There were, alas, one or two not entirely unanimous entries laid bare by the hall’s unforgivingly accurate acoustic. These were, however, very occasional exceptions to the rule. This was, on the whole, exceptionally tight choral singing.

The audience raised the roof during the traditional congregational carols. Unfortunately this meant some very fine, choir-only descants got a bit lost. Becky McGlade’s thoughtful setting of In the Bleak Midwinter made a refreshing change from the two more well-known versions. We got not one, but two settings of There is no Rose – one by Simon Preston and, as one of the two encores, Birmingham’s own John Joubert. Iain Farrington’s jazzy Nova Nova delivered a toe tapping conclusion to the programmed music.

The concert was Nethsisngha’s last appearance with the choir before he moves on to his new appointment as Head of Music at Westminster Abbey. On the evidence of this performance the music for the coronation next year is in very safe hands and we can all look forward to something quite special.

The Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge

Conductor – Andrew Nethsingha

Organ – Thomas Trotter

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