December 2014: Christmas Gala Exeter Cathedral, Saturday 6 December 2014 Source: David Batty A POPULAR START TO CHRISTMAS The Exeter Festival Chorus's Christmas gala concert on 6 December featured a popular programme that was sure to please the audience in a well-filled Exeter Cathedral. The concert's first item, extracts from Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, might almost seem to match the experience of the crowds outside on the Cathedral Green at the Christmas Market with all its 'olden' connections. The Festival Chorus, conducted by Nigel Perrin, responded to the rhythmic challenges of the piece with sensitivity and gusto in equal measure. Perhaps something was lost through the (understandable) use of reduced accompanying forces – piano duet and percussion – thus missing the colour of Orff's full orchestration; on occasion, percussion did tend to dominate the choir. Guest for the evening, the ever popular and engaging Lesley Garrett, then presented a set of sacred, operatic and folk song solos. The soloist's north-country roots were very evident in two attractive folks songs from that part of the world, one of which especially, The Bold Grenadier, was sung with a lovely sense of longing. The 'Habanera' from Bizet's Carmen was performed with a knowing, seductive charm, while perhaps the highlight of the set was one of the singer's signature pieces, 'Song to the Moon' from Dvořák's Rusalka, in which all the yearnings of young love were beautifully presented. Throughout the evening, five accompanists – piano/piano duet, organ and percussion – provided effective support for the singers And it was organ and percussion that joined Lesley Garrett and the Festival Chorus after the interval for seasonal solos and choruses from Handel's Messiah, a work which the Chorus has sung on a number of occasions and which was demonstrated in the accuracy and clarity of the singing, especially in a particularly fleet-of-foot 'Hallelujah'. Finally, it was the audience's turn to join in the singing of some popular carols, interspersed with more items from the evening's soloist and the choir. The Chorus's sustained singing of Whitacre's Lux Aurumque was very affecting while, in contrast, Lesley Garrett's and the Chorus's mischievous telling of The Twelve Days of Christmas brought much laughter. Finally, two encores, The Little Drummer Boy and Walking in the Air sent the audience away in a happy, festive mood. This concert supported the work of the Exeter Leukaemia Fund.