REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Carols By Candlelight, Chapter House Choir, York Minster, December 15

Chapter House Choir musical director Benjamin Morris

WITHDRAWAL symptoms were widespread last year when Carols By Candlelight succumbed to Covid. For it has become a tradition without which no York Yuletide is complete.

This year it was back with a vengeance, transplanted from the Chapter House to the Nave of the Minster to allow a larger audience. Even if the candles did not flicker quite so intimately, the move was a resounding success: the building’s wide-open spaces were encouraged to co-operate.

Musical director Benjamin Morris had chosen a typically eclectic programme. Admirably, more than half of the 18 choral pieces were either composed or arranged by living musicians. In addition to the main choir, we enjoyed the Chapter House Youth Choir, conducted by Charlie Gowers-Smith, the traditional Handbell Ringers and three organ interludes from Asher Oliver.

The combined choirs opened with Andrew Carter’s tasteful arrangement of the Advent plainsong hymn, Veni Emmanuel, sung in procession. The Advent responsory that followed featured a beautifully crystalline soprano soloist (unnamed). Muscular contrasts came with Joubert’s Torches and in the crisp syncopation of Matthias’s arrangement of Sir Christèmas, the oldest carol here and reaching back to the 15th century.

At the other end of the spectrum, we had Master of the Queen’s Music Judith Weir’s setting of William Blake’s My Guardian Angel, with its cleverly repeating Alleluia, sung by the combined choirs. Even more atmospheric was Holst’s In The Bleak Midwinter, with the alternating choirs widely spaced. The sweet harmonies of Sally Beamish’s In The Stillness stood up well alongside Warlock’s tasty Bethlehem Down.

The choir’s final group was the best of all. After tenderly caressing The Shepherds’ Farewell, from Berlioz’s ‘L’enfance du Christ’, there was a lovely calm in Nicola LeFanu’s Saint Ita’s Lullaby and much feeling in Rutter’s melodious Candlelight Carol. We finished as we began, with founder-director Andrew Carter’s Make We Merry, spirited and heart-warming.

Along the way, the Handbell Ringers brought their mystifying skills to bear on four numbers, with Carter’s arrangement of Good King Wenceslas and John Hastie’s of We Wish You A Merry Christmas drawing especially warm applause.

The Youth Choir launched into the Vaughan Williams arrangement of the Yorkshire Wassail with special vigour. Oliver’s three contributions were gracefully restrained – we might have had a little more in the way of fireworks – although he had to do battle with a reed stop on the newly-restored organ speaking rather less than cleanly.

At ten minutes less than two hours despite no interval, the concert might have been a touch shorter for audience comfort in the chill, but it was wonderfully energising to have this great tradition back where it belonged.

Review by Martin Dreyer

Next performance by Chapter House Choir: Festival of Carols, St Michael-le-Belfrey, York, December 18, 7.30pm.

Chapter House Choir’s carol concert at York Minster sells out. Prompt booking advised for St Michael-le-Belfrey on December 18

St Michael-le-Belfrey: Playing host to the Chapter House Choir on December 18

THE Chapter House Choir’s ever-popular Carols by Candlelight at York Minster has once again sold out, two weeks before the 7.30pm performance on December 15.

 “However, if you have missed out on obtaining a ticket for this wonderful occasion, you have a second chance to hear the choir and the bell ringers of the choir,” says honorary secretary David Frith.

The second concert , a Festival of Carols with the Chapter House Choir, will take place at St Michael-le-Belfrey, York, on December 18 at 7.30pm. Tickets are available via Eventbrite,   “but hurry because they are limited in number and selling fast,” advises David.

Chapter House Choir’s Carols By Candlelight goes online on December 16

Going virtual: Chapter House Choir members assembled via home recordings for the 2020 Carols By Candlelight concert. Picture: Kat Young

THE Chapter House Choir will release an online version of its ever-popular Carols By Candlelight concert as part of York Minster’s Christmas programme.

After the Coronavirus pandemic snuffed out the usual Carols By Candlelight format, the chamber choir’s 30-minute video performance will be go live next Wednesday (16/12/2020) at 7.30pm, free to view via yorkminster.org./whats-on and on the choir’s social-media channels.

Created by choir members performing individually from home, the virtual recordings will be set against footage of York Minster’s 13th-century Chapter House in candlelight. Christmas carols both old and new will be complemented by festive music performed by the Handbell Ringers of the Chapter House Choir.

Highlights of Carols By Candlelight concerts from past years will feature too, taken from performances in 2012 under Stephen Williams and 1999 under Jane Sturmheit.

The choir’s musical director, Ben Morris, says: “Each year, people say to me that Christmas starts for them with Carols By Candlelight in York Minster’s atmospheric Chapter House. At the end of this year, which has seen so much hardship, when choirs have been silenced and singing has been so missed, we felt it was more important than ever to create a version of this special tradition, so that people far and wide could join us virtually and share in a few minutes of festive music in the run-up to Christmas.”

New footage of the York Minster Chapter House by David Rose will feature in the virtual Carols By Candlelight concert. Picture: David Rose

The film has been edited by audio and visual engineer Kat Young, at present a research associate at the University of York’s AudioLab, and includes new footage of the Chapter House by videographer and sound specialist David Rose. 

Formed in 1965 to raise funds for the York Minster Appeal, the Chapter House Choir is a progressive and dynamic ensemble that presents beautiful yet challenging programmes from the full range of the choral repertoire.

The chamber choir regularly commissions new music, such as Everyone Sang by Roderick Williams, premiered with The King’s Singers; Song Cycle: Vive la Vélorution by Alexander L’Estrange, for the Tour de France Grand Depart in Yorkshire, and Arcadia by Judith Bingham, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War.

New pieces by Gabriel Jackson, Bob Chilcott, Paul Mottram, Lillie Harris and the choir’s founder conductor, Andrew Carter, have been premiered too.

Coming next? Wait and see. The choir’s latest Coronavirus update, posted on its website on November 22, says: “We currently have no live concerts planned, but we look forward to returning to live performances as soon as we can.”

Bev Jones Music Company to stage Strictly Christmas Live show at Rowntree Park

The Bev Jones Music Company in a socially distanced rehearsal for last Sunday’s Strictly Live In The Park at Rowntree Park, York

THE Bev Jones Music Company will return to the Rowntree Park Amphitheatre, in York, for shows at Christmas and next Easter.

“Further to the overwhelming success of our musical theatre show there last Sunday afternoon, we’ve booked a Christmas date and Easter date for the park,” says producer Lesley Jones.

September 13’s Strictly Live In The Park concert featured more than 20 socially distanced singers and a five-piece band in a “spectacular show for all the family, with popular show music, pop music, dance and comedy”. 

“Sunday was hot and sunny, whereas December will be scarves and hats, fairy lights and hot mulled wine (non-alcoholic),” says Lesley.

Strictly Christmas Live In The Park will take place on Sunday, December 13 at 2pm. “Our Christmas programme will be a mix of modern popular festive music in a spectacular song and dance show, then will culminate in an audience-led Carols By Candlelight at 5pm. Two shows in one,” says Lesley.

“Our production will be staged and directed by Nathan Lodge and Jordan Langford, two former York stage performers with Bev’s company, who turned professional and have been performing and choreographing all over the world. 

“We’re delighted we’ll be welcoming back other familiar names from our company past, plus our current company, resulting in our most talented cast ever.” 

Looking ahead to next spring too, Lesley says: “Easter’s show will have a different musical focus, culminating in our own Jesus Christ Superstar tribute in the park in traditional style.” 

Tickets for Strictly Christmas Live In The Park will go on sale for social bubbles on October 1 at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk or on 01904 501935.