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Thursday, February 6, 2014

Musical Christmas Cheer: Seeing the Hannover Knabenchor at the Essener Philharmonie

Did you ever wonder what sorts of things make the holidays cheerful and bright? Perhaps you have a favorite tea, or cookie, or evening ritual which is sacred to you that brings just the right amount of coziness to your Advent season.  Though, I'd bet anything that music is one aspect of your holiday atmosphere that you simply couldn't go without.  I mean, at the first sound of "Jingle Bells" on the radio most people get in the Christmas spirit.

Now, I'm certainly not a classical music snob, and I thoroughly appreciate all of the popular secular Christmas songs that are out there, but the sound of a Christmas Carol sung by a children's choir is, to me, the pinnacle of all of Christmas' musical incarnations.  Therefore it was only fitting that my well-informed Boyfriend purchased tickets for us to attend the recent Christmas concert performed at the Essener Philharmonie (Philharmonic in Essen, Germany) by the Hannover Knabenchor (Hannover Boys Choir) and the London Brass.  What a spectacular experience for my ears and thereby, my soul!  I'll wager these boys could sing anything and make it sound angelic.  But all kidding aside, their performance was utterly professional: not one chorister was inattentive and they all looked as if they were thrilled to pieces to be singing this music, which I can understand since their program was so varied in style and language.

They first sang four pieces written before 1650 (the first by William Byrd, "Sing joyfully unto God our strength", the second by Anonymous, "Angelus ad Virginem", the third also by Anonymous, "The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors", and the fourth by Thomas Weelkes, "Hosanna to the son of David") which were all very beautiful but also quite austere, as many pieces were that were written in that time period.  Then they continued with "A spotless rose" by Herbert Howells which was particularly beautiful, followed by "In dulci jubilo" arranged by Robert Pearsall, which featured different sections sung in Latin and German, as well as English. Then they sung "Wexford Carol" arranged by John Rutter (one of my personal favorites simply because I love everything that John Rutter has ever written), and then a piece by Benjamin Britten called "A Hymn to the Virgin", which was also very beautiful since it utilized the excellent acoustics in the hall by its being written for two smaller choirs singing antiphonally to one another. It was quite an audience favorite because of that surprise.  Then the intermission came, and already I could feel that the whole audience had the impression that the time flew by and they'd have gladly sat there another 30 minutes before they needed a break.

Whatever the case, the second half held other treasures, so it was perhaps good that we could clear our auditory palette in order to appreciate them fully. It began with a sacred favorite, "O come all ye faithful" arranged by David Willcocks, which was followed by a piece arranged by Roger Harvey, "Gabriel's Message", featuring a wonderful Baritone soloist chosen from amongst the choir members. "Away in a manger" was next, also arranged by Roger Harvey, and then a piece that is new to me and has become one of my favorites through their performance of it, "Shepherd's Carol" by Bob Chilcott. What a truly stunning use of dynamics and color couple with excellent storytelling, poetic text!  It was just beautiful! Another John Rutter arrangement of a popular classic "Deck the hall" followed, with another Roger Harvey arrangement, "The Holly and the Ivy" (another favorite of mine) just introducing the truly famous next four songs.  Those being: "Joy to the world", arranged by Richard Bissill, "The First Nowell" arranged by David Willcocks, "We wish you a merry Christmas" arranged by Arthur Warrell and finally "Hark! the hearald-angels sing" arranged by David Willcocks.  The children, the conductor (Joerg Breiding- who did an absolutely exquisite job handling the musical nuances and colors of the pieces while not allowing the choristers' voices to be overtaxed but simply flowing and beautiful and healthy- BRAVO!) and the London Brass players were certainly in a bit of a mischievous mood since they all donned Santa Claus hats before singing these final four pieces, which only added to the joyful spirit emanating from their music-making. It was truly a delight to be in the audience for such a special experience.

I think, though, I was not the only audience member who was happy to realize that they had prepared several encore pieces, since they also received two standing ovations which they most certainly deserved!  For their encore they simply repeated "O come, all ye faithful", "Deck the hall", and "We wish you a merry Christmas" which was just a perfect ending to a perfect concert.

The London Brass was also truly marvelous and in good form in this performance, and although this was actually their concert in which the Hannover Knabenchor was simply their guest, the choristers definitely stole the show.  However, I'm sure the London Brass didn't mind since they obviously couldn't help but enjoying themselves making music with the choir members- you could tell how much fun they had in this performance- a wonderful example of how collaboration is just as rewarding and potentially more so than performing solo.

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