Modelled on the Church of England carol service tradition, the Festival of Carols presented Saturday evening by the Elora Festival Singers was a perfect microcosm of the ideal Christmas season: full of wit and good cheer and free from holiday anxieties about presents, neverending baking and Uncle Harold’s inevitably inappropriate dinner table comments.
St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church in Elora was just the right size, with the wonderfully intimate atmosphere resulting in a real feeling of a communal event. The tenor of the evening was captured brilliantly by conductor Noel Edison’s poinsettia-red crushed velvet smoking jacket: a little bit traditional and a whole lot of fun.
The first piece was an energetic arrangement of the Sussex Carol by Bob Chilcott. Stilted rhythm and compound chords are characteristic of his style and this version was unapologetically modern setting of this Victorian carol. The next piece on the program, the Coventry Carol, did not survive its updating quite so well. Chilcott’s arrangement traded in the gentle eeriness of the carol’s modal harmony for something that had — somewhat oddly considering the subject matter — lost a bit of its innocence.
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, the first audience participation number, was lifted straight out of a King’s College, Cambridge, carol service complete with the Willcocks descant on the third verse and gloriously crunchy alternative harmonization courtesy of organist Michael Bloss on the fourth.
Two non-religious songs followed, A Christmas Song and Old Toy Trains. The first is so closely tied to Mel Torme, that it wouldn’t have been a surprise to see him making his way into the chancel.
On this occasion, Mel’s shoes were ably filled by bass Michael Cressman, who rather than trying to imitate, made the song his own. Although Old Toy Trains was saccharine to the extreme, it did illustrate the choir’s incredible ability to switch between genres and vocal styles seemingly without effort, a sign of an ensemble with great depth.
The next audience carol was superb arrangement of The First Nowell by Paul Halley. It was an imaginative mixture of modern and traditional styles that brought a fresh twist to a seasonal favourite.
The Twelve Days of Christmas is often a song that seems like a good idea at the time but loses its appeal somewhere around the time the geese come on the scene. Thankfully, that was not the case on Saturday.
The song unfolded in a fairly traditional manner until the choir reached the first mention of the five gold rings, when seemingly out of nowhere, alto Robin Vaillancourt, channelling Mahalia Jackson, launched into a flamboyantly melismatic improvisation.
As the song continued, the five gold rings were transformed into the Flower Duet from Delibes’ opera Lakmé, Silent Night, a barbershop quartet, Motown, a 1940s choir with vibrato wide enough to drive a truck through, an earnest children’s choir and an enthusiastic gospel choir complete with several well-placed hallelujahs.
In short, it was brilliant and it was clear the choir members were really enjoying themselves. The jokes were still fresh despite this being the program’s fourth performance in three days.
Jingle Bells was given a 1950s stereophonic treatment that brought to mind post-Sinatra lounge orchestras. Again, the choir adapted effortlessly to the change in style and made it sound like jazz was their core repertoire.
The Elora Festival Singers continued the traditional carol theme after a rousing audience-aided rendition of O Come, All Ye Faithful with a beautiful arrangement of In The Bleak Midwinter.
This was the most classical of the pieces the choir sang on their own and the results were captivating. Their lovely, full sound filled the church with an aural version of mulled cider: warm, soothing and impossible to dislike.
Interpolated between the musical numbers were stories selected by St. John’s minister, Robert Hulse, “not so much for your spiritual edification as your amusement.”
Hulse is gifted with spot-on comedic timing and had the audience in stitches with The Snow Shoveler’s Diary and A Senior Christmas.
The piece de resistance, however, was Hulse’s final contribution, a story of a good deed gone terribly and hilariously wrong.
In spite of the fact that my companion was intent on reliving his days as a boy soprano during the audience singing, it does seem a pity that it will be another 360 days until the next Elora Festival Singers Festival of Carols. Happily there are only 26 days until their next concert. Entitled Made in Canada, it takes place at St. John’s Church on Sunday, Jan. 20, at 3 p.m.