Storm Desmond was howling at the doors and St Oswald’s church is always a little gloomy at night time anyway, but none of that made any difference to Northern Spirit Singers who sprinkled the church with Christmas magic. This was their first concert under their new conductor, Clare Lawrence-Wills, and, in fact, the first time I’d managed to see them live, although I’ve heard them a few times on the radio and television, and reviewed their first recording in the summer.
After a beautifully light and dancing madrigal, Hence Stars by Michael East, the programme for the first half mostly stayed away from Christmas music, apart from Peter Warlock’s heart-breaking Bethlehem Down. A piece by American composer Ola Gjeilo, Phoenix: Agnus Dei evoked the spacious skies and heat of the Arizona desert with some powerful singing from Northern Spirit, particularly during the densely textured ‘Dona Nobis Pacem’ passages. Bruckner’s Os Justi was similarly expansive, with good balance between the parts; I liked the way that Clare Lawrence-Wills drew out the lower voices so that the sopranos very high notes were woven into the fabric of the piece, not just baubles on the top.
The first half included the UK première of Phillip Cooke’s O Salutaris Hostia – a dazzling piece that shifted and shimmered between from short unison pages into startling razor-sharp harmonies, requiring not only perfect tuning but really sustained, controlled singing. After all the harmonic glitter, the music died away into a dark Amen, ending with a solo soprano – it was a beautiful and challenging piece and Northern Spirit Singers gave a tremendous performance that sent shivers down my spine.
Clare Lawrence-Wills said that Mia Makaraoff is one of the choir’s favourite composers, and Armottoman Osa which ended the first half is the sort of energetic show-piece that wins this choir prizes, although tonight they sounded slightly underpowered in this piece, and there were a few other lapses during the evening that I think were out of character – but December is a cruel month for singers and talking to people in the interval there were definitely some colds around.
After mince pies in the interval, the musical party hats and crackers came out, beginning with Ralph Allwood’s spirited arrangement of Jingle Bells, complete with actual sleigh bells and lots of smiles. We also enjoyed Peter Gritton’s arrangement of Christmas Song, Richard Allain’s take on Santa Baby and the jewel in the crown, Slade’s Merry Christmas Everyone arranged by Northern Spirit’s former director, Andy King. Northern Spirit brought to all these pieces the crisp, light singing and sense of fun that is so vital for their effectiveness, and Santa Baby was downright saucy. The mood was tempered by a very warm, gentle performance of Holst’s In the bleak midwinter, made particularly atmospheric by the frankly terrifying howls and creaks from the storm outside, and Tchaikovsky’s tragic The Crown of Roses. And after the silliness of the Slade arrangement, the lights went out and Northern Spirit ended in candlelight with the Reginald Jacques version of Away in a manger – truly a magical ending.