Review: Rugby Philharmonic Choir returns in style with Christmas concert

Here's a review of the choir's peformance

The Rugby Philharmonic Choir appeared with the Rugby Philharmonic Sinfonia

REVIEW

Christmas Concert by Rugby Philharmonic Choir at Temple Speech Room (December 4, 2021)

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Review written by Dr Jonathan Smith, chairman of the Rugby Philharmonic Choir

Rugby Philharmonic Choir

‘So, the Phil are back!’, one longstanding supporter exclaimed as she walked into the Temple Speech Room on Saturday evening for the first time in two years, writes Dr Jonathan Smith.

And indeed, the Rugby Philharmonic Choir was back in style, with a new Director of Music, Dr Richard Dunster-Sigtermans (affectionately known as RDS), who had devised a delightful seasonal programme, which evidently pleased the sizeable audience hugely.

The concert opened with Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Christmas Carols and the richly dark baritone of soloist Matthew Sharp, whose first notes were as immediately arresting as an annunciation, haloed as they were by the ethereal sound of the choir.

‘We wish you glad tidings of comfort and joy’: this was the perfect welcome back from the choir to the people of Rugby. The Fantasia was played by the Rugby Philharmonic Sinfonia, whose sweet strings then claimed the limelight for Corelli’s Concerto Grosso in G minor, otherwise known as the Christmas concerto. They showed all the precision and clarity baroque music requires.

Chris White led the orchestra incisively, RDS ensured fluid phrasing, and the sequence of short movements with their contrasting tempi epitomised the varied shape of the concert as a whole. The gentle Pastorale that closed the Christmas concerto was the perfect introduction to The Three Kings by Cornelius, evoked with suitably vibrant authority by the baritone soloist as they make their way to the place that will become the centre of the world. This was the audience’s cue to become participants in the time-honoured way and join the Choir in a celebration of that later Bohemian king, Good King Wenceslas.

The second half of the concert began with Christmas Day and the injunction ‘On this day, Rejoice!’ composed by Jonathan Willcocks (son of Sir David) and arranged by RDS. This was the first UK performance for many years and it raised the roof. The audience applauded even when they strictly shouldn’t, but this only made it feel more like the Proms, where joyous appreciation just has to make itself felt.

Again, a sequence of short movements comprising well-known carol arrangements and original compositions kept the balance between the familiar and the new. It was also here that the unity of all the forces on stage was perhaps most clearly heard. The choir’s diction was excellent and their hushed controlled tones in ‘Sweet was the song’ made this movement just that. When asking ‘What child is this?’ the subtle interplay of strings and voices produced a rich clarity of texture that seemed to be already a kind of answer.

After a second carol for choir and audience, ‘Hark! The herald angels sing’ (our esteemed guest, the Mayor of Rugby, Cllr Deepah Roberts, confessed that she particularly enjoyed these moments of audience participation), came the last and perhaps most popular item of the evening. Arranged again by RDS, The Twelve Days of Christmas, composed by Edward Watson with words by John Julian Norwich, was not only ‘a novel take on a much-loved seasonal favourite’ (here, as elsewhere, I am indebted to Tony Millinger’s excellent programme notes) but a kind of young animal lover’s guide to the orchestra.

The orchestration was allusive and witty, the onomatopoeia irresistible, notably from the one-man percussion section, who nearly stole the show. But the singers were unassailable, the tenors hissed like geese a-laying, the basses mooed like the cows brought by maids a-milking, the two whole choir not only sang but moved as one. There was a palpable sense of enjoyment from all on stage that communicated itself to the audience and sent everyone home jubilant.

This was a choir in good voice, in good spirits and in good hands, clearly delighted to be back in the TSR and offering a seasonal programme that the Mayor herself declared delightful. A raffle in aid of the Bradby Club added just one more touch of community spirit to an event that is now emphatically back at the centre of Rugby life.

By Dr Jonathan Smith