Over the past 25+ years, the Peterborough Singers have perfected the recipe for their cherished annual Christmas concert.
To the core ingredients of the 100-voice choir, a virtuosic brass ensemble, and the powerful Casavant pipe organ at Emmanuel United Church are added a handful of familiar sing-along Christmas carols, a dash of dazzling classical choral favourites, and the zest of some spirited popular seasonal songs. The result is a warm feast for the senses, one that many Peterborough-area music lovers consider the indispensable kick-off to their holiday celebrations.
Yet, like any gourmet chef, the Singers’ Artistic Director Syd Birrell knows that the secret to ensuring his guests keep coming back year after year is to keep them guessing by experimenting with and improving the menu wherever possible.
This year, Birrell and the Singers are trying something new by adding a sprinkling of Hollywood to the holiday mix. The set-list for this year’s concert includes two songs from the movie The Polar Express, as well as the wildly popular “Let it Go” from Disney’s Frozen. The latter will be performed using the lush a cappella arrangement popularized by the musical group Pentatonix, which has been listened to nearly 7 million times on YouTube alone.
“I’m always open to trying new things,” says Birrell. “So when a number of our under-30 choir members approached me and requested that we sing some of these popular songs from the movies, I couldn’t say no. They checked every box: They’re beautiful and inspiring, appropriate for the season, technically challenging for our choir members, and wildly popular with many of our audience members.”
At the same time, Birrell emphasized that the core elements that have characterized the Singers’ annual Christmas concert for the past quarter-century remain untouched.
“Every year, I hear the same thing from our audience members: the moments they look forward to the most are when Ian Sadler pulls out all the stops on the organ, the brass give it everything they’ve got, and the choir is joined by the 800-or-so members of the audience in singing classic carols like ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ and ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing.’ In those moments, the warmth and joy in the church is overwhelming, with nearly 1000 people united by the magic of music and the spirit of the season. It’s a truly unforgettable experience that stays with me for days after the concert is over.”
Also in the repertoire for this year are classics like “Adam Lay yBounden,” “The Holly and the Ivy,” and “The Angel Gabriel” – the latter in a rich arrangement by a local musician, a former teacher at Trinity College School in Port Hope. There will also be two starkly contrasting pieces by John Rutter – “as far apart as you can imagine,” says Birrell – the delightful, playful “Jesus Child,” and the complex and serious “Dormi Jesu.” And not to be missed is an uproarious performance of “The Grinch,” arranged for choir and brass by one of the Singers’ own members – David Geene – who also stars in the role of the Grinch.
Returning by popular demand will be the charming, talented, and always-popular Venabrass ensemble – a group of virtuosi brass musicians originally all from the same family. The Venabrass love to play together at all kinds of events, including Salvation Army Christmas kettles in cities from Toronto to Vancouver, and even in Portland, Oregon. They have also had the honour of being included in two recent Christmas recording projects for the Salvation Army in the Ontario Central East Division.
Also accompanying the Singers will be Juno-award-winning organist Ian Sadler.