Review: New Cambridge Singers & Sinfonia of Cambridge: Christmas Concert at St John the Evangelist Church, Saturday December, 15
A combination of freezing seasonal weather and the Final of ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ had clearly made no impact on audience attendance for Saturday evening’s Christmas concert at the Church of St John the Evangelist, Hills Road. It was standing room only for The New Cambridge Singers who were joined by the Sinfonia of Cambridge, in a captivating performance of Benjamin Britten’s ‘A Ceremony of Carols’ and Gian Carlo Menotti’s ‘Amahl and the Night Visitors’, writes John Gilroy.
From ‘Procession’ to ‘Recession’ the eleven movements of Britten’s comparatively short ‘Ceremony of Carols’ encapsulates the entire Christian message from Adam’s fall, the birth of the Christ Child, the ‘happy fault’ of Man’s transgression, to the ultimate promise of redemption.
The second movement, ‘Wolcum Yole’, contains a reminder of St John the Evangelist, appropriately for the concert’s location, who in his Gospel stresses always the divinity of Christ, and is welcomed along with ‘Stevene’ and ‘Thomas,’ martyrs for the sake of his message.
Interspersed among the celebratory foundations of the faith are lyrical solo pieces which emphasise the tenderness of Mary, Mother of God, and the beauty of creation, and there is an instrumental pastoral interlude, sensitively played on Saturday evening by distinguished harpist, Rohan Platts, giving some sense, as intended, of what the heavenly state promises to be in fulfilment.
The New Cambridge Singers addressed Britten’s work throughout with an almost palpable understanding of, and reverence for, what this ‘ceremony of innocence’ is meant to convey; the indomitable strength of ‘This Little Babe’ (‘movement 7’) in his apparent weakness, with Conductor and Director, Graham Walker producing exactly the relevant quotients of energy and restraint that the composition demands.
A thoughtful recitation of T.S.Eliot’s ‘The Journey of the Magi’ preceded a concert performance of Menotti’s one-act opera ‘Amahl and the Night Visitors’. It would be true to say that this work is not known as widely as it has been in America where, since its first performance on NBC television on Christmas Eve 1951, its popularity ensured its continuing to be seasonally broadcast.
In all, it’s a charming work in which Menotti deliberately avoids the commercial hype over Christmas which he experienced when he went to live in America, and focuses instead on the story of the Three Wise Men, a source for the magic of the season that he recalled from his childhood in Italy.
Only 6 characters take part, the two largest roles being that of the mother of Amahl, and Amahl himself. Much credit must go to Stefanos Narinian’s performance of Amahl, a latter day Dickensian Tiny Tim, who is lame and walks with a crutch. Not only is there a lot to learn for the role, but also an almost continuous stage presence is required by it, and Stefanos was unflagging in his sensitive and convincing presentation.
The Sinfonia of Cambridge provided some beautiful accompaniment to the drama, the ‘oriental’ oboe melody heard from time to time being particularly effective.
In an episode where the three kings are temporarily stayed from their purpose, seven young dancers (6 girls and one boy) from the Sylvia Armit School of Dance, entertained in a beguilingly diverting sequence, before the miraculously ‘healed’ Amahl joined the caravan to present to the infant Jesus with thanks the no longer needed crutch.
Perhaps a touch sentimental in narration, yes, but as Amahl took leave of his mother (excellently played by soprano Sophie Cotton) and joined the kings on their caravan to Bethlehem, something strangely moving and effective was present. Surely ‘We three kings’ is the most hauntingly mysterious carol of all, and Saturday night’s performers were perfect in conveying that meaning within the Christmas story that simply refuses to die.