Out of the Shadows

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Contemporary carols in style: Suzi Digby & ORA launch their Advent Calendar

Suzi Digby and ORA at the Royal Hospital Chelsea
Suzi Digby and ORA at the Royal Hospital Chelsea
ORA Advent Calendar; ORA, Suzi Digby; Royal Hospital Chelsea
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Nov 30 2017
Star rating: 4.5

ORA celebrates the launch of its Advent Calendar with a programme of contemporary music for Advent and Christmas including two new commissions

On Friday 1 December 2017, the choir ORA (artistic director Suzi Digby) launches its Advent Calendar, releasing a recording of a contemporary Christmas carol each day from 1 to 24 December, including two new commissions from John Rutter and Debbie Wiseman. To celebrate this, Suzi Digby and the choir gave a pair of concerts at the Royal Hospital Chelsea, and we were lucky enough to catch the first concert on Wednesday 29 November 2017 when they performed carols and arrangements by a remarkable range of living composers, John Rutter, Debbie Wiseman, Jim Clements, Adrian Peacock, Richard Allain, Fredrik Sixten, Roderick Williams, James Burton, Ola Gjeilo and Steven Sametz, along with music by Arvo Pärt, Eric Whitacre, Judith Weir, Tomas Luis de Victoria, and Morten Lauridsen.

Suzi Digby and ORA at the Royal Hospital Chelsea
Suzi Digby and ORA at the Royal Hospital Chelsea
As ever, the visual presentation was highly dramatic and imaginative. We started out in the Great Hall, with the choir singing from outside and gradually moving into the hall, processing to plainsong. Various locations were used in the hall, so that everyone had a variety of different views of the group. Then during Judith Weir's My Guardian Angel the choir processed to the chapel and the audience followed; and it all worked perfectly!

We opened with Jim Clements' arrangement of Gabriel's Message sung with the choir outside of the hall. This started from a striking opening and developed into a clean yet romantic harmonisation of the traditional carol. With the choir outside, the sound was a little quiet to hear details but it was very atmospheric when they processed in to the plainchant Alma Redemptoris Mater. Adrian Peacock's Venite Gaudete started by setting up a lightly rhythmic accompaniment from the women, and then the men sang a richly harmonised tune over this, and then the roles were reversed to create a strong and striking piece.

The Coventry Carol was sung first in the original three-part medieval version, the results not at all neo-medieval but just finely sung. Richard Allain's arrangement of the carol followed; Allain has added an undulating harmonic line to the carol to rather striking effect. Rather lovely and effective, the harmony and textures gradually took over and the undulating line reminded me of a passage from Schnittke's Choir Concerto, though the style is very very different.

Joby Burgess
Joby Burgess
Arvo Pärt's Bogorodiste Djevo, a setting of the Russian Orthodox version of the Ave Maria, was strong and vibrant with some lovely dancing rhythms. Eric Whitacre's Lux Aurumque had real clarity and radiance to the sound, particularly Whitacre's trademark close-harmony chords. But the result was not at all fey, instead Suzi Digby drew a really vibrant sound from the singers.

Fredrik Sixten's Mary's Lullaby took the traditional Silent Night and overlaid it with a new soprano solo with new words as Mary sings a lullaby to the Christ Child. The harmonisation used rather jazz-influenced chords and the solo was lovely though not many words came over. One of the highlights for me was the performance of Roderick Williams' O Adonai, et dux domus Israel. Here we started with a solo soprano singing a haunting yet angular melody and she was gradually joined by the other five sopranos, each on an individual line, they were then joined by the lower three parts singing a richly harmonised chorale-like melody. Finally bass, Ben Davies, added an extra solo line to the potent mix, the whole gradually evaporating leaving just a solo soprano.

Debbie Wiseman's The Christmas Tree added timpani (played by Joby Burgess) to the choir. I was placed with the timpani closer to me than the choir, so that the balance was not quite ideal and the dramatic timpani part dominated somewhat. However, Wiseman's choral setting was full of imaginative textures.

Suzi Digby and ORA at the Royal Hospital Chelsea
Suzi Digby and ORA at the Royal Hospital Chelsea
Judith Weir's My Guardian Angel used choir and drum (this time carried by percussionist Joby Burgess) as the choir processed to the chapel. The first half of the piece consisted of plainchant-like repeated Alleluias and finally overlaid with a lovely counter-melody, simple yet effective.

John Rutter's Suzi's Carol used choir and xylophone (again Joby Burgess). Starting from a simple but lovely soprano line, Rutter's setting gradually added harmonies to fine effect, but the fascination came from the xylophone part which add glitter to the mix. James Burton's Balualow had a very traditional English feel in its use of close harmonies.

Tomas Luis de Victoria's motet O Magnum Mysterium had a very sculptural quality to the vocal lines, strongly sung with quite a classical yet passionate effect. Morten Lauridsen's setting of the same words create a magical effect thanks to the choir's placement of Lauridsen's harmonies.

I have to confess to being somewhat puzzled by the next item. Ola Gjeilo has arranged not a traditional carol, but Gustav Holst's In the bleak midwinter, a work which would hardly seem to need re-arranging. Gjeilo provided an introduction and harmonic backdrop in his own contemporary romantic style, and over this he laid Holst's melody, first on soprano solo, second on tenor solo and finally from a group of sopranos.

Steven Sametz's Gaudete! set a medieval Latin text not dissimilar to the Agincourt Carol, and combined a vigorous melody with some striking moments, with some interesting multi-layered textures all creating a wonderfully vigorous and lively finish.

Suzi Digby and ORA at the Royal Hospital Chelsea
Suzi Digby and ORA at the Royal Hospital Chelsea
ORA's Advent Calendar starts on 1 December 2017, each day a new carol will be available on the choir website, http://www.orasingers.co.uk/ as well as being broadcast in the UK and abroad.

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