From much-beloved sing-a-long traditional Christmas carols to virtuosic choral pieces by the great classical composers themed around the holiday season and enchanting and polished performances by one of the region’s great brass ensembles—the Peterborough Singers’ 2016 Yuletide Cheer concert has it all.
And that’s just the way Peterborough Singers Artistic Director Syd Birrell likes it. As he explains, crafting the varied program for the Singers’ annual holiday concert is a painstaking labour of love, but the process is all guided by one simple goal: “What I want is for audience members to walk away saying, ‘This one never lets us down. It’s always thrilling and exciting, and a fantastic start to our Christmas season.’”
Over the past 25 years, the Singers have perfected their festive recipe, with the annual Yuletide Cheer concert consistently being among their best-attended performances.
The base ingredient of every year’s concert is the sing-a-long carol. First-time attendees often remark that they have never heard carols performed like this.
“Even though I love exploring music we’ve never done before, to me there’s no thrill like when you’ve got seven-to-eight hundred people just raising the roof and singing a traditional Christmas song like ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing,’ accompanied by the organ at full blast, and a brass ensemble filling the whole building with sound,” says Birrell. “I don’t know where you’d hear it sung with that kind of power and heart anywhere in or around Peterborough. It’s an unforgettable experience.”
This year’s program also includes favourites like “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Good King Wenceslas,” and “What Child Is This.”
Then there are those lush but hair-raisingly difficult pieces, chosen by Birrell specifically to challenge the choir and push its musical limits. This year’s program features the complex but celestial “Ave Maria” by Franz Biebl and “O Magnum Mysterium” by Morten Lauridsen.
Then there are the two Hannukah songs, “Candle Blessings” and “Maoz Tzur,” which Birrell describes simply as “ethereal.” It is “very gratifying to be able to offer some beautiful music from the Hanukkah tradition,” said Birrell, noting that Jewish audience members have reacted enthusiastically in the past when the choir has performed music from their tradition.
Another novel element of this year’s performance will be the “twinning” of two different arrangements of “Carol of the Bells” and the Magnificat. “I thought it would be fun to contrast two significantly different arrangements of these two great works,” says Birrell.
This year the Singers will be joined by the charming, talented, and always-popular Venabrass ensemble—a group of virtuosi brass musicians all from the same family. The Venabrass members 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. Recital tours have taken Ian to Denmark, Sweden, Austria, the continental USA and Hawaii, Australia, and back to the UK, where he recently performed his third organ recital at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge. Ian has made 8 organ CD recordings, and, in 1999, he won a Juno for a choral CD.