Reviews / A variety unsurpassed

Shetland Choral Society's 'Music for Christmas' concert - Photo: Arwed Wenger

Shetland Choral Society Christmas Concert 2012

I don’t know how the elders (if there are any) of St. Columbas Church, its patrons and matrons, or the convivial Arthur Watt are feeling about the departure of the Shetland Choral Society to Mareel. I’m not sure how I feel about it either, so used had I become to the kirk’s concerts. I also have a prejudice that churches and cathedrals are the appropriate places for carol services, and that Christmas is fundamentally – if not actually these days – a Christian celebration.


The first thing that caught my attention at Mareel was that there was no space on stage for both choir and orchestra. No string section, no Feri Bartai on double bass – what a big miss!

But then…the programme offered two instrumental interludes, and a violin solo, and Nigel Hayward was to be accompanist on a grand piano, which stood gleaming at rear left of the stage.


I had often wished at the Muckle Kirk for a little more ambiance (or hyggeligt as the Danes describe it) – say provided by candlelight or its electric equivalent. Mareel provided much more subdued lighting, with a black night-sky backcloth: and the choir were dressed all in black! That is, apart from a little sequin and tinsel adornment here and there.

What other differences? The auditorium’s acoustics are of course supposed to be second to none. Being in the third row from the front provided a sense of intimacy as well – but that might not have been the case nearer the back. The place was packed with people of all ages – but whether the audience outnumbered previous choral concerts or not, I couldn’t say. 300 folk seems to be an average.


And while on the subject of audience, it felt slightly odd being asked to stand as the lights came on, and sing the carols – whereas in a place of worship it’s second nature. Perhaps that’s to do with the preconceived idea of being at a ‘performance’ where the division between audience and player is accentuated by the seating and the raised stage.

The Altos and basses - Photo: Chris Brown

Now, having got all those grapes, sour and sweet, out of my mouth, let’s remember that it’s the music and the craft and artistry of the performers that are all important in a concert. And we had it in ‘shedloads’ (that’s not a poke at Mareel’s exterior).

Indeed I think the sheer variety of what was on offer was unsurpassed; and we had two conductors, one of them presenting his own compositions.

Donald MacDonald took the rostrum for the first half of the concert, and complete with informative and entertaining introductions (imagine finding Gustav Holst’s name inscribed on the inside of your school desk!), gave us music ranging from the modern (William Walton and Vaughan Williams – the latter’s No Sad Thought a lovely meditation, based on an anonymous poem, from the composer’s Hodiecantata) to traditional – the Sans Day

Carol, so familiar from my childhood, with its strange colours of holly berries – and Holst’s arrangement of an old folk song – The Saviour of the World is Born;  not forgetting the ‘popular’ Do You Hear What I Hear? – written, incidentally, during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 (Pray for peace, people everywhere!)

Conductor Peter Davis with some of the sophranos and tenors - Photo: Chris Brown

Among these were three familiar carols sung by all present, including a favourite of mine, Good King Wenceslas, so descriptive of winter, and exhorting charity from the great and – hopefully – beneficent.

The first instrumental interlude was unusual – and I don’t mean that in the sense I’ve often heard in Shetland, i.e., denoting something unpleasant or unwelcome to the senses. A brass ensemble of two trumpets and two trombones fairly blasted out three rousing pieces, again ranging from old to new: something classical from 16th century Venice (Andrea Gabrieli), an old German interpretation of 17th century Robert Herrick’s Carol – I’d like to hear this sung sometime – and a Gopak (Cossack dance)  by the modern composer and trumpeter Malcolm Bennett.

The movements of the players’ fingers and arms were entrancing: so much diversity of sound! (And, sorry to revert to this again, the Mareel acoustics lent them a wondrous quality.)

Before the interval we were treated to some Russian church music – as we were in 2010 – from Rachmaninoff’s All Night Vigil, sung in the original language. As Donald MacDonald said, we should imagine a procession of priests, candles and icons. Not hard to do with closed eyes.

The second half of the concert was conducted by Peter Davis, who sported a bright red bow tie, and was, shall I say, more ebullient than his predecessor.

Beginning with the brisk and brief Torches, written in1951 by the South African John Joubert, and including two quieter ensemble carols, Silent Night and Away in a Manger, Peter introduced us to three of his own compositions.

Mary’s Lullaby was gentle, with words by local artist Janice Armstrong. Welcome Yule – which should have been premiered in last year’s cancelled concert, uses a 15th Century text, and as we were informed, actually celebrates the beginning of the New Year.


The words of The Cradle Song, which Peter found 40 years ago in the writings of George Mackay Brown, are of local origin. This was a beautiful Shetlandic melody, enhanced by a haunting solo violin, or rather solo fiddle, perfectly executed by Mary Dimitrov, who stood near to Nigel Hayward’s piano while she played.

Nigel then treated us to his composition of a Christmas medley of recorder music. Never again will I think of that instrument as a simpleton’s musical introduction. We were in the presence, it seemed, of an early Renaissance court; just as in the brass ensemble, the tonal variety of the instruments was astounding.

The final part ranged from Palestrina’s stately and sublime Alma Redemptoris Mater, echoing with elements of Gregorian chant, as it were, from St. Peter’s in Rome, through the jubilant and somewhat pagan Boar’s Head Carol (shades of Oxford’s Bullingdon Club here?), and the oddly named Sir Cristemas; to a spine-tingling John Rutter arrangement of a Shakespeare song.

Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind, from the play As You Like It, is not a carol, but an ironic, bitter-sweet reflection on humanity’s partiality for inhumanity. Apart from wishing the choir, musicians, accompanist, conductors, audience – and readers – a Merry Christmas, in response to the choral society’s heartfelt greeting to us – with a suddenly starlit sky and Peter Davis donning a Santa hat – I’d like to conclude with the Bard’s words:

Blow, blow, thou winter wind
Thou art not so unkind
As man’s ingratitude;
Thy tooth is not so keen,
Because thou art not seen,
Although thy breath be rude.


Heigh-ho! Sing, heigh-ho! Unto the green holly:
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:
Then heigh-ho, the holly!
This life is most jolly.

Freeze, freeze thou bitter sky,
That does not bite so nigh
As benefits forgot:
Though thou the waters warp,
Thy sting is not so sharp
As a friend remembered not.  

Heigh-ho! Sing, heigh-ho! Unto the green holly:
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:
Then heigh-ho, the holly!
This life is most jolly.

James Mackenzie