Victoria Chorale: 30th Anniversary Christmas Concert

St Paul’s Cathedral is surely one of Melbourne’s best venues for a historical musical celebration of Christmas and for Victoria Chorale’s 30th Anniversary Concert. From its foundation years with choral leader Val Pyers (1993 – 2006), the choir has continued a growing history of artistic performances. Sold out concerts are confirming its popularity and, now with 90 voices, the choir has also established a sense of joie de vivre and camaraderie. Conductor Mario Dobernig’s message was full of pride for the Chorale as he introduced the program with many smiles, warmth and humour, cheekily poking fun at himself for his biased selection of personal favourite songs, and describing the evening’s three generations of soloists as “emerging, celebrated and legendary”. The audience was always quick to laugh at many other birthday surprises.

Vivaldi’s Gloria RV 589 was an excellent opener – celebratory and varied in vocal, instrumental and atmospheric content, although a few rather robust strings at times dominated the vocal leading and softer work. With each successive movement, greater balance within string sections and contrasting dynamics coloured each section, ranging from gentleness and reverence to exultant joy. Emerging young singers Eliza Bennetts O’Connor and Syrah Torii showed an excellent partnership in “Laudamus Te”, with clean articulations and delivering the special sweetness of youth and confidence, now accompanied by sweetly toned strings. Bennetts O’Connor’s voice filled St Paul’s Cathedral beautifully in her solo “Domine Deus”, accompanied by a reduced accompaniment of richly expressive solo oboe and continuo. Dobernig certainly coloured the work with detailed expression of text, mood and dynamic changes, and the audience was more than satisfied with this familiar and popular work as a splendid Christmas present to us.

Following interval, a change of Christmas fare brought past Chorale conductor and musical comrade pianist Raymond Yong to give us a charming, lyrical and elegant Grande Valse Brillante Op 18 by Chopin – well known, fast, fleeting and brilliant, honest and sensitive until its final closing fortissimo.

Dobernig makes no secret of his love for Austrian musical traditions, with a delectable traditional Advent hymn, “Maria Walks Amid the Thorn”, now with a light warm string accompaniment contrasting with the Franconian folk dancing rhythms of “Lieb Nachtigall”. Hushed angelic echoes between soprano solo and female choir were fine moments in Vladimir Godar’s “Dormi, Jesu”, with touches of drones and folk-like harp accompaniment. How welcome in music is humour, and the audience was surprised to hear only a couple of “normal” opening verses of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” before an increase in vocal traffic from soloists and small groups added growing humour, contrapuntal busyness, animal calls and chaos to each verse, bringing smiles and laughter into an entertaining piece.

We had been promised legendary guests, and two of Australia’s most popular and well-loved singers of renown made this celebration a historical occasion with heart touching performances.  Soprano Margaret Haggart showed her star qualities in Verdi’s “La Vergine degli Angeli” showing the impressive vocal range and clean bell-like tone she is known for.  Baritone John Bolton Wood filled the cathedral with his bold, rich and authoritative voice, and gave an exemplary demonstration of presentation, poise and expressive hand gesture.

For this special anniversary, Victoria Chorale’s Vice-President, Judy Blissard held our attention with her highly creative approach to speech making – “rhyming doggerel” she called it – a rhyming and humorous poetic ballad honouring Val Pyers and the conductors who followed, with performers and audience willingly participating in the anticipated rhymes.

The traditional and gentle “Ihr Kinderlein, kommet” (Oh Come Little Children) reminded us of the joy of Christmas for children and the birth of Jesus Christ while enjoying Christmas choral repertoire across the centuries. Three carols arranged by English composer John Rutter added further opportunity for the choristers to show their best tonal colour and expression particularly in a very beautiful, hushed blend in an atmospheric accompaniment of “I Wonder as I Wander”, with guest mezzo-soprano Sally-Anne Russell leading the final verse. 

Spaced through the program, three carols for audience participation were given colourful arrangement and presentation, and instead of the usual razzamatazz finales with brass fanfares and organ splendour, the program continued to flow gently into the night in a peaceful and spiritual calm – with “Silent Night” led by Sally-Anne Russell, who spontaneously invited Margaret Haggart to join her on stage and be part of the historic closure to Victoria Chorale’s 30th Anniversary Christmas Concert.

Photo credit: Living Imagery

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Julie McErlain reviewed Victoria Chorale’s 30th Anniversary Christmas Concert, presented by Victoria Chorale and the Art of Sound Orchestra at St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne on December 9, 2023.