REVIEW: Spectacular Christmas cracker of a show lives up to its billing

Students of the Janet Seymour School of Theatre Dance take a bow. Photo by Martin Higginson.

By Betsy Everett

A Christmas spectacular was promised and delivered as Ripon’s St Cecilia Orchestra took their audience on a journey of surprises and musical delights – which at this time of year can be a tricky enterprise.

Packed as it is with carols and concerts in schools and churches and village halls, December can all too easily become a byword for musical as well as dietary overload.

And as the “real” meaning of Christmas, a celebration of God coming to earth in human form, is reinterpreted nationwide as a commercial spendfest, it’s hard for any enterprise to keep the balance between the sacred and the secular.
The story continues after the adverts. . .

But with a clever mix of inspiring orchestral pieces, dances and choral singing, this lovely concert successfully blurred the edges between the two: traditional carols with not even a nod to political correctness (“goodwill henceforth from heaven to man,” a shining example) and jolly dances from the talented students of the Janet Seymour School of Theatre Dance.

If you can also pack a can-can, a moody tango and a series of James Herriot jokes into a two-hour festive entertainment, you know you’ve hit the spot.

At least two members of the Wensleydale School choir had to be shepherded off the stage to join their fellow dancers for three totally contrasting routines performed with grace and vigour: the classic can-can from Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld Overture, the delicate Dance of the Mirlitons from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, and the world premiere of John B Sullivan’s Lazy Tango for Christmas – and all, as one audience member noted with admiration, on a carpeted floor.

All credit, too, to ten-year-old Thomas Hughes of Ripon for his crystal clear treble solos in three carols – Once in Royal David’s City, In the Bleak Midwinter and Silent Night – steadfastly holding his own against the powerful strains of the orchestra.

Conductor Xenephon Kelsey is to be congratulated for presenting a lively, fast-paced programme that managed both to embody the true spirit of the season and dispense the gloom of a winter’s afternoon.

One of the great strengths of the St Cecilia Orchestra lies in its mix of amateur and professional musicians, teachers and students from all over the north, usually meeting, as the programme notes point out, for just two days of intensive rehearsals before each concert, and exuding a real pride and delight in the music they make.

Rodney Tennant conducts the auction for the Herriot Hospice Homecare charity. Photo by Martin Higginson.

The orchestra’s commitment to, and encouragement of, young musicians and singers, was in evidence throughout. As one proud mother of a school choir member remarked: “What an amazing opportunity for them to be able to perform with an orchestra of this quality.” A sentiment echoed, no doubt, by the members of Leyburn Ladies Choir whose Angels’ Carol by John Rutter (“the composer who owns Christmas,” says the New York Times), was a highlight among many.

The concert was compered with a nice lightness of touch by Jim Wight, son of Alf Wight, aka James Herriot. His father, said Jim, would have been “very proud” to have his name associated with an evening of such splendid musical entertainment.  Alf’s own father worked in the shipyards of Glasgow by day and was a concert pianist by night, and his mother was a professional singer.

If there is any criticism it is only that the venue, the Garden Rooms at Tennants in Leyburn, grand though the setting may be for other events, somehow lacked atmosphere. In a relatively harsh and featureless environment, the lighting needs to be warmer, and more mellow. How to achieve that while allowing the audience full participation in the carols is a matter for a greater mind than mine, but that shouldn’t be hard to find.

One more thing: we should have been allowed to stand for the carols – you cannot sing Hark the Herald Angels from a chair – and we should not have had to plough through muddy puddles in the unsurfaced car park at the end of such a superb evening. That, too, needs sorting.

St Cecilia’s Orchestra and Wensleydale School choir lead the carol singing. Photo by Betsy Everett.
Leyburn Ladies Choir. Photo by Martin Higginson.
Can-can girls take the floor for Orpheus in the Underworld. Photo by Martin Higginson.
Photo by Martin Higginson.