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St. John’s College Choir in Nijmegen

You’ve heard about the Night before Christmas. Well, this year I got to experience the Weekend before Christmas. Because basically Christmas started one weekend before the actual date, with the singing of O Come All Ye Faithful in a packed Stevenskerk in Nijmegen with the St. John’s College Choir! 🙂

The renowned St. John’s Choir gave a splendid Christmas themed concert, in what director Andrew Nethsinga considers his favourite church in the Netherlands, because of the wonderful acoustics. And wonderful it did indeed sound – and look too, with a life size nativity scene in the background, trees glowing with starlike lights and candles burning in the chandeliers above our heads.

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A great atmosphere for a night I’d been looking forward to. Earlier this year, I witnessed the King’s College Choir live in concert and now it was time to get a taste of their neighbouring ‘rivals’.

Without any introduction the choristers filed onto the stage and a solo tenor voice started the Gaude, gaude, gaude, Maria by John Sheppard, a gorgeous and elegant polyphonic piece with bits of old plainchant still intact. I find I quite like these old pieces which have the original plainchant melodies still in them, like the way you can sometimes see original wall paintings in a church that’s been around for ages. Luckily, some ideas change along with the development in music, as the rather dubious sentence, sung in plainchant, about Jews who do not believe in the divine nature of Christ, proved. It was amazing to hear how tight and controlled the choir sounded, like Nethsingha was just manipulating dials on a machine, rather than making calm and concentrated gestures in front of human beings. The trebles seemed to roll and shine on top of the lower voices, and were almost singing as one, while the distinction of the adult voices (countertenors, tenors and basses) served to adorn the fabric on which the high notes were woven. This long first piece was followed by an organ solo, a Prelude and Fugue in C by Bach. I wasn’t always fond of the heavier sounds coming from the organ but loved the more flute- and brasslike sounds in the joyful fugue.

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Up next was the Ceremony of Carols by Benjamin Britten, accompanied on a harp with a beautifully adorned gold column. The boys and men filed in procession to the stage whilst singing. Because they were at first invisible, and we could see the life size nativity scene in the background (which was part of a small exhibition of nativity scenes), the ilusion was created of angels coming down to sing the praises of the newborn Jesus. Very moving.

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Tonight’s arrangement of the Ceremony by Julius Harrison included the lower voices, which was cleverly done, but for me took away some of the unique charm of Britten’s work. Nevertheless, the dramatic impact of This little babe was undeniable. The choir performed it with an almost military force, in concordance with the lyrics, and left at least myself and the lady in front of me breathless. The interlude for harp solo which followed could not have been more perfectly timed. A lovely, enchanting, tender piece, that had the boys and men crowded around the harp player with rapt attention, as if they were crowded around the crib in the stable in Bethlehem.
In freezing winter night, the next piece, had a beautiful solo, though at the final two words (“doth bring”) the boy’s voice sounded a bit rumbling. But perhaps the boy will one day grow up to become one of the choir’s hallmark roaring basses 😉 (some of which, by the way, were pretty handsome lads ;)). The Ceremony ended with the same piece it started with, and the boys and men had to make sure they formed a neat procession again, which for some of the younger ones was a bit difficult 😉 The choir continued singing all the way in the back of wherever they disappeared to, until the absolute faintest “Alleluia” could be heard, truly fading into silence. Magnificent.

During the interval it was time for coffee and a visit to the merchandise stand, where we bought, how appropriate, the album “On Christmas Night”.

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Looking forward to listening to it in the coming days! We also wandered around and enjoyed the church interior and some of the nativity scenes on exhibition.

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What a nice treat to add to a wonderful concert!

In theatres you have bells that ring to tell you it’s time to get back to your seat again, in churches you just let the organ play a few notes 🙂 So back in our seats we were for the second half which began with a piece that I was really looking forward to, and which – I think – I had never heard live before: Allegri’s famous setting of Psalm 51, Miserere mei. Truth be told, it did not have the impact I had expected but perhaps that was due to my feelings of anticipation. Nevertheless I got goosebumps when they started. It was interesting to experience it live, as it added more dynamics to the different parts in regard to where the sound came from: the plainchant tenor part, the bits with high and low voices together and ofcourse the famous treble solo line. Nethsingha employed two boys for this, alternating one another: one older boy with a ‘thinner’ voice who had to make some effort to get the job done, and a younger, smaller boy with a rounder voice, who sang it with just as much intensity as if he were ordering a loaf of bread at the bakery – in other words, I couldn’t believe how well he sang it with such little emphasis 🙂 Again the choir departed, and two organ pieces by Bach followed: Gottes Sohn ist kommen and Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland. The first one contrasted dry low sounds with a high melody, the second piece was again very joyful.

The final part of the programme was made up of different shorter Christmas pieces from all parts of the globe and from many different eras. My favourite carol of all, Silent Night, was probably THE highlight for me. I closed my eyes and dreamed away, to my memories of the shepherd’s fields in Bethlehem that I visited in February this year, mingled with memories of Christmas celebrations as a child. During the concert I often enjoyed watching the choir sing, their expressions etc, but for this piece I just wanted to revel in the sound alone. Very, very moving.
The peace and calm of Silent Night was paired with the bouncing energy of Tomorrow shall be my dancing day, employing the rich contrast between the bell-like trebles and sturdy men, followed by a boisterous power piece for the men, Riu, riu chiu. Each verse was sung completely a cappella by a different singer, and it was amazing to hear them sing so many words in Spanish in such a rigorous tempo and with such conviction. Bravo!

Two completely different settings of the same text followed: Bogoroditse Dyevo (‘Hail, Mother of God’) by Pärt and Rachmaninoff. The Pärt version was another amazing example of this choir’s control of volume and intensity at the most detailed level, again as if Nethsingha was operating a machine, though there was nothing detached in this warm and convincing performance. For the Rachmaninoff piece I once again closed my eyes and bathed in the voices, which gave the typical St. John’s intensity at the full-on climax near the end. Again the church showed its great acoustics, with all the voices kept clear and tight and the echo ringing just long enough. The same trademark intensity was showcased in Peter Wishart’s Alleluya, a new work is come on hand, which sounded just as festive as the title suggests and fit the choir like a glove. And then it was already time to rise and stand for the final piece and to sing with full gusto former King’s director Sir David Willcock’s arrangement of the famous Christmas classic O Come All Ye Faithful. Like my boyfriend said afterwards, it’s hard to get back in Advent mood for three remaining days after this!

Receiving a standing ovation, the beaming Nethsingha and his proud choir could not resist two encores: Tavener’s The Lamb, just glowing with dissonances and melody, and a comic barbershop interpretation of Jingle Bells sung by the men, complete with thigh slapping and finger snapping, as Andrew Nethsingha lounged on the side of the stage, enjoying it all, like everyone around him did as well. A wonderful night and a perfect runner-up for the real Christmas celebrations that are coming soon.

I wish everyone, whether you follow my blog or just dropped by, a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, filled with joy, love and music! See you in 2013!

Israël 427