Wednesday 20 December 2023

Like no other: Brixton Chamber Orchestra's Christmas party moved from classical and carols to rap, disco and a Shane MacGowan tribute

Matthew O'Keeffe & Brixton Chamber Orchestra at Upstairs at the Department Store
Matthew O'Keeffe & Brixton Chamber Orchestra at Upstairs at the Department Store

Brixton Chamber Orchestra's Christmas Party at Upstairs at The Department Store, Brixton. Reviewed  18 December 2023

Everything from carols and Johann Strauss to a Shane MacGowan tribute, rap and disco in an evening full of energy, enthusiasm and terrific performances

Three quarters of the way through its Christmas Estates tour, which ends at Lambeth Town Hall on Thursday 21 December, Matthew O'Keeffe and the Brixton Chamber Orchestra gave a celebratory Christmas Party at Upstairs at The Department Store, a members club in Brixton on Monday 18 December 2023. O'Keeffe directed the 25-piece orchestra in three generous sets which moved from classical and sedate right through to having the whole audience up on its feet dancing. 

Perhaps the feeling of the evening could be summed up by a number from their second set, announced as the theme music from The Apprentice (aka 'The Montagues and Capulets' from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet), midway through a vivid performance the orchestra was joined by a rapper for rap with orchestral backing based on the Prokofiev, and ultimately there were three rappers bouncing off each other including one of the orchestra's viola players.

A packed audience at Upstairs
A packed audience at Upstairs

Things began in a more sedate style, with a set that included a Christmas medley moving from carol arrangements to Elton John's Step into Christmas with a terrific vocalist, Georgia who sang lots of numbers with the orchestra. Then they brought real pit orchestra energy to the overture to Johann Strauss' Die Fledermaus, and we also had Nino Rota's title theme from The Godfather. Two carols featured audience participation, and they did sing lustily, cribbing words from their phones, whilst a mash-up of In dulce jubilo and Sussex Carol included a fine recorder solo.

The second set began with an imaginative overture, SW2 written by local composer Ben Burrell that moved from slow introduction to dance-music up-tempo. Georgia returned with Wham's Last Christmas, given a striking makeover in O'Keeffe's orchestration and with audience sing-along. Rapper Saiming also got the audience joining in with his rap, and then lead viola Natalie gave us a North-Eastern Turkish folk-song (in Turkish). This was a very up-tempo number that provided a fine change of pace and style. Georgia's rendition of Have yourself a merry little Christmas featured the orchestra joining in the chorus, in harmony, and the set ended with Mischa Mullov-Abbado's arrangement of Winter Wonderland again with vocals from Georgia.

Visuals were important too, some orchestra members changed between sets, whilst Georgia gave us a three full outfits going from demure black through to zinging orange. 

For the last set, we began with Georgia singing Mariah Carey's All I want for Christmas is you to be joined by Matthew O'Keeffe singing Wizzard's I wish it could be Christmas every day in an engagingly bizarre high-energy mash-up. Then Georgia gave us Tyler's Water (Make me sweat), working up quite some energy, and this led into a Shane MacGowan tribute in Fairytale of New York with Georgia and Matthew O'Keeffe. Georgia then introduced the next song as an R'nB classic that they had performed the other day at a school, as part of the Estates Tour, and the children had said that they didn't sing that song because it was lame. Mary J Blige's Family Affair was definitely not lame, at least in Georgia and BCO's rendition. A disco sequence followed, with audience members of all ages joining in the dancing, so we had Sister Sledge's He's the Greatest Dancer, complete with added rap, then The Crusader's Street Life, and finally Stevie Wonder's Do I Do. For an encore we had Reach Out.

Georgia, Matthew O'Keeffe & Brixton Chamber Orchestra at Upstairs at the Department Store
Georgia, Matthew O'Keeffe & Brixton Chamber Orchestra at Upstairs at the Department Store

This was an amazing three hours (three sets of 40 minutes each), a terrific amount of work for all concerned and I was impressed by the way the young musicians could all turn on a pin and move between Johann Strauss and Prokofiev to rap and disco. I have to credit Georgia with not only turning out fabulous vocals in a variety of styles, but keeping up the energy, and you could not but help admire the rappers who did so with aplomb in an environment very different to the normal club.

This was an evening like no other. I understand that the Estates Tour concerts have been getting terrific audiences as well, and well do they deserve to.

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