Friday 20 December 2013

On Bethlehem Down, London Oriana Choir

Every Christmas for the past three years, I’ve been to St James’ Piccadilly to see the incredible London Oriana Choir perform. This year however, we had same choir and same venue, but a new musical director and, dare I say it, a night like never before.

In 1662, Henry Jermyn, who was the first Earl of St Albans, was granted land which, at that time, was in the outskirts of London. He appointed Christopher Wren as architect in 1672, and after being consecrated in 1684, the parish of St James was created for the church the following year. If you know the area, you’ll know St James’. It’s right on Piccadilly (in front of Jermyn Street, and now you know why) and usually has an antique market set up in the grounds.

The London Oriana Choir were performing ‘On Bethlehem Down’ that evening, a programme full of traditional carols, ending with the title tune. It was a special evening for many reasons; not only were they introducing new musical director Dominic Peckham, who up until recently has been singing at The Royal Opera House, but they were also celebrating their fortieth season.

I absolutely love carol services, and especially this year, as it’s the first Christmas that I haven’t been either at school myself or involved in school life. Having been an active member of both choirs and chamber choirs, my repertoire of carols is pretty good, despite no longer being able to hit the top notes of the descants!

It's such a joy to hear Sir David Willcocks' arrangements in full belt. I was actually lucky enough to meet the man himself, as I was taught by his daughter! He managed to impress a whole room full of teenage girls by sitting on the floor, cross-legged with his back to the piano, and lifting his arms up and crossing his hands behind his head, he accompanied our singing with perfect playing! 

Traditionally, the congregation started the evening with ‘Once In Royal David’s City’, and ended with ‘Hark The Herald Angel Sing’, with a good blast of ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ in the middle. But mostly we were all sitting and quietly listening, awe-struck by the talent of the choir. I loved hearing the tunes that I used to sing, but done properly, with a hundred strong voices, (not 18 with some off sick, like I’m used to).

There were some lesser known carols that I remembered performing myself, like "Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day" and two versions of the "Coventry Carol" arranged by Leighton and Allain, and then came the highlight of the night by far, "O Come O Come Emmanuel".

This is a traditional carol, that night arranged by Dominic Peckham himself. He moved the choir so they were standing in the three aisles amongst the congregation. The different ranges were spread quite far apart therefore, which was impressive itself - I know from experience how much confidence you need to be able to give a strong vocal when you suddenly feel like you're singing alone!

The carol started with a solo from Li-Ann Wong Taylor, and despite an initial wobble, Peckham carefully stopped her, gave her her note, and she started again, absolutely beautifully. As the rest of the choir joined in, the church was filled with these incredible whispering harmonies, all directed by Peckham's very watchful eye. It's hard to describe it exactly, but you could tell that everyone in the congregation was moved emotionally.

The London Oriana choir are exceptionally talented, especially when you consider that they are only a group of volunteers who practice once a week. Bankers, doctors, solicitors and teachers by day, musical angels by night. 

If you want to experience The London Oriana choir for yourself, their next performance is on 14th March at St Paul's in Convent Garden, where they will be celebrating with their 40rh Anniversary Season Gala Concert. See their website for more details.

No comments:

Post a Comment