REVIEW: A CHRISTMAS FESTIVAL

Christmas concert the perfect Sunday afternoon entertainment

Trust Waikato Symphony Orchestra with the Southwell School Girls’ Choir

When: Sunday, November 27
Where: Clarence St Theatre
Works by: Prokoviev, Anderson, and others
Conductor: Rupert d’Cruze
Narrator: David Artis
Concert master: Katie Mayes
Reviewer: Sam Edwards

Rupert d’Cruze’s musical elves and fairies gifted us over an hour of nostalgia and vocal and instrumental pleasure programmed with an intelligently interesting take on modern perceptions of Christmas. There were references to cinema, Samuel Marsden, and flying snowmen, and to Christmas activities with Northern Hemisphere winters providing social opportunities in the snow.

The whiskery old Santa whose image originated in a Coca-Cola advertising campaign was seen sitting on a crescent moon as the afternoon’s backdrop to Leroy Anderson’s 1950 Christmas Festival Overture with which the concert finished. The overture was based on popular Christmas songs and carols, intelligently interwoven to be fun to listen to and underline the experience people of our generation have come to recognise as Christmas.

The orchestra handled the combination of traditional carols and modern Christmas songs with aplomb, segueing between baroque and pop rock with ease and maintaining the festive mood the audience was expecting with dignity, delight, and understanding.

The concert had opened with Prokoviev’s Troika, and there were moments when one thought that this was a deliberately provocative interpretation of Prokoviev, with tuning and tempi appearing to work against each other, rather than having the music provide the aural equivalent of being pulled through the snow on a bell-equipped Russian sledge. It was not pretty, and conductor d’Cruze worked his ictus energetically to turn a wayward start into a performance which contained great beauty and a real sense of the happiness and community which comes with modern December festivities.

The centrepiece was Howard Blake’s 1982 composition The Snowman, infiltrated by his expertise as a screen composer, and focussed by the central figure of a snowman, but executed with wonderful beauty and intensity by the orchestra, and by the Southwell Girls’ Choir, who were pitch perfect and beautifully blended as they sang the classic Walking in the Air, before continuing with the New Zealand carol Te Harinui. This was a concert with some lovely moments, and a rousing family centred start to the fun of Christmas.

There is nothing like an enthusiastic audience for raising the level of enjoyment. A positive mood is one of the great gifts of Christmas, and on Sunday afternoon, people were there to enjoy themselves, to celebrate gifts like the Southwell School Girls’ Choir, and to tap their feet and offer enthusiastic applause accompanied by occasional whistles.

As they left, they sang their own chorus of comments like “Oh wow! Isn’t that that skating music my mum used to sing?” Or “Doncha love Silent Night? Best carol ever, I reckon.”

It was a popular concert, and there is a real charm in that. Audiences are attracted by what they know and appreciate. There is so much more material in the popular music oeuvre which is worthy of full orchestral treatment, and is accessible to a wide audience. To have made this a season of Buxtehude and Bach could have meant a major box office loss, and today’s orchestras cannot run on charity. What the TWSO offered on Sunday was exactly right for the occasion.

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