With help from Red Deer’s mayor and the Calgary Boys’ Choir, the Red Deer Symphony Orchestra delivered two sorts of British Christmases on Saturday — the divine and the jolly.
The filled-to-the-rafters Christmas From the British Isles concert at the Gaetz Memorial United Church in downtown Red Deer offered something for everyone — starting with religious music performed by seven members of the Calgary Boys’ Choir, harpist Gianetta Baril, and a pared-down orchestra.
The evening began with a stirring tune that music director Claude Lapalme said is probably the most featured in Anglican Christmas services — John Henry Gauntlett’s Once in Royal David’s City.
While ubiquitous, the song is also sparsely beautiful, made the more so by the angelic voices of the choir (along with three adult sopranos), and the church’s wonderful acoustics.
More austere, but lovely, sacred music was heard when the choir tackled Benjamin Britten’s difficult A Ceremony of Carols, with only Baril accompanying on the harp.
While Britten composed the music in the 1940s, the Middle English carols were actually written in the 12th to 16th centuries.
The 10 songs ranged from the ethereal (Gregorian processional, Holdie Christus natus est), to the peaceful In Freezing Winter Night, and the uplifting Spring Carol.
Some translations made for unintended mirth. For instance, the words to Deo Gracias are: “Adam was bound in sin for four thousand years/although he thought this not too long/ It was all for an apple that he took/ as cleric find written in their books . . .”
Despite its rather painful lack of profundity, the carol was gorgeously delivered by the young choir members, who were in fine form even though three of their members had to stay home due to illness.
Baril also spun some ancient magic with her harp — particularly during the solo interlude when the melody was as gentle as snowdrops.
Audience members responded enthusiastically to the Britten piece, rising to their feet.
The boys’ choir, led by Paul Grindlay, wrapped up its set with a splendid rendition of Gustav Holst’s In the Bleak Midwinter, with chamber orchestra accompaniment.
If Holst’s carol was too stuffy for some tastes, the rest of the concert brought a little more ho-ho-ho, including Joy to the World.
There was the sprightly Irish traditional Curoo Curoo — Carol of the Birds, and the Scottish favourite Auld Lang Syne, which caused nostalgic audience members to sing along.
Both works were vividly performed by the full orchestra — as was the original score to the featured piece, Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales.
The 20-minute story about Thomas’s idealized childhood was read in sonorous tones by Red Deer Mayor Morris Flewwelling.
All of his public speaking duties must have paid off, as the mayor wrung the right amount of drama out of the passages about the Christmas Day fire, the excitement of pranking neighbours, snowballing cats, and opening presents.
Flewwelling also captured the sleepy contentment that Thomas conveyed as he wrote about comical family moments around the fire at the end of a long, happy day.
The beguiling, expressive orchestral score that Lapalme adapted from Christmas carols did exactly what it was supposed to — it created mystery when needed, and stood out when the script called for it — such as when the orchestra piped up with snatches from Good King Wenceslas just as the carol is mentioned in the story.
Despite the few times the orchestra threatened to drown out narration, Flewwelling and the RDSO went together like spiced rum and eggnog — they were the perfect seasonal mix.
The mayor’s reward was getting to bask for a few moments in what few municipal politician ever receive — a standing ovation.