Saturday 16 December 2023
St. David's Church, Exeter

Exeter Festival Chorus’ Christmas concert was a skilfully designed programme of music to represent the mysterious and ethereal qualities of the Northern Lights.

A wide range of Scandinavian Yuletide music performed by the fantastic, incredibly diligent choir and professional string quintet, supported by resident répétiteur Peter Adcock, all under the watchful and inspirational direction of Andrea Brown.

Mårten Jansson’s Missa Popularis was central to the programme. This work was a real hit with the audience; five movements of the Mass inspired by Swedish folk music. The balance between choral parts was wonderful, and the choir’s power in the joyful Gloria and Credo was surpassed only by the greatly confident Amens. The Mass was accompanied by the superb Divertimento String Ensemble, adding another dimension to this collection of jaunty folk songs and dances.

Another feature of the first half was music by the Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo. Serenity (O Magnum Mysterium) saw the choir spread into a semi-circle around the front of the audience, giving a ‘surround-sound’ feel. This suited the atmospheric nature of the music, drawing the whole audience into the intimate feeling of space. A highlight for me was the accompanying solo violin – beautiful, sensitive and, as the composer himself expresses, something that came straight from the heart. The choir’s diction in the a cappella Northern Lights was excellent and the rich, warm harmony helped evoked the beauty of the Aurora Borealis. The choir had arranged for special lighting features in this concert: the background turned green, representing the delights of the Northern Lights. A mesmerising performance. Unicornis Captivatur was the third piece from Ola Gjeilo. The text, part of a compilation of medieval chants completed around 1400, inspired the composer through colourful symbolism, drama, and sheer joy.

The second half opened with Es ist ein Ros entsprungen. Jan Sandström incorporated Michael Praetorius’ setting of the well-known carol into a piece for two choirs, where the second choir hums throughout. The music was expressive, atmospheric, and helped regain the beautiful Northen Lights mystery from the first half, after the audience had enjoyed a glass of Glögg in the interval.

The choir performed three other pieces in the second half. Arvo Pärt’s Salve Regina built very gradually throughout the piece to a majestic climax. Mårten Lauridsen’s setting of O Magnum Mysterium was a gentle, quiet finale, completing the inner sense of joy and beauty surrounding Aurora Borealis. A real treat was Swedish composer Gustav Nordqvist’s Jul, Jul, Strålande Jul. The piece was split into two parts: the first depicting that glorious Christmas with snow and sparkling lights; this changes to a holy Christmas wishing for light and peace. The hymnlike quality of this piece was exquisite, enhanced by the Divertimento ensemble again. Simply beautiful.

Peter Adcock accompanied audience carols on the organ but shone in the piano solo Arctic Romance by Bo Nilsson. Scandinavian Romanticism blew the audience away. Thank you, Peter.

For me the highlight was Stars, by Latvian Ēriks Ešenvalds, a cappella with accompanying wine glasses. The eerie text of being ‘alone… pines all around me spicy and still’ moving to the majesty of ‘heaven full of stars over my head’ was portrayed brilliantly. The choir sang with passion, particularly with the ‘dome of heaven . . .full of stars.’ The power at that point was immense, though the wine glasses sang through at various points. The text finishes ‘I know I am honoured to be witness of so much majesty.’

Majesty of singing, lighting, piano/organ and string ensemble representing the majesty of Northern Lights. Simplicity, power, richness, warmth, splendour, space, stillness – all present in tonight’s performance as in the Aurora Borealis. Thank you to Andrea Brown and Exeter Festival Chorus for introducing the people of Exeter and Devon to A Scandinavian Christmas.

Paul Stock