When I was a schoolboy, I was part of (though no choice of my own) a church-like organisation that had some characteristics of a cult. It demanded unswerving devotion to ‘The Pastor’, over and above devotion to God, and the pastor’s instructions were to be taken as gospel, taking precedence over the Bible. One of the things they insisted on was an annual ‘Christmas Presentation’, which they asserted was ‘for the Lord’ (whatever that meant) but was really a way of forcing youngsters like me with no performing arts talent whatsoever to sing and dance in the name of entertainment. If their version of God was real, I am quite sure I would have been ‘smitten’ there and then and sent to Hell, of which there was more talk of in this ‘church’ than Heaven.
At some point as a teenager I saw the light, so to speak. Fast forward to 2018. I find myself attending two Christmas concerts, with some very high-quality musicianship in both, as far removed from the likes of me mumbling through some very poorly written and completely immemorable material as it is possible to get. Firstly, on Saturday afternoon (and evening, though I was reviewing in the evening, so the matinee it had to be), ‘Christmas Praise’ at All Souls Church, Langham Place has been going on for decades, led this year for the last time, at least in his current role as conductor of the All Souls Orchestra (I suspect they’ll have him back as a guest), by Dr Noel Tredinnick, whose baritone vocal rang out across the church to introduce an alternative arrangement to ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night’.
The programme was eclectic, to say the least. Their soloists were Beverly Trotman, a former X-Factor participant who is now an assistant headteacher in Bedfordshire, and Lucy Grimble, a London-based singer-songwriter, backed by Trotman’s daughter Tianna, and Nikki Thornton, about which, sadly, no further details were disclosed. Grimble’s own composition, ‘Great Redeemer’, had the feel of one of those chart music style hymns sometimes heard on the BBC’s ‘Songs of Praise’, while there were ample opportunities for the audience to sing traditional seasonal melodies, including five verses of ‘It Came Upon A Midnight Clear’.
Worthy of mention is an arrangement of ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’ (this from a church which one year did ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’), and ‘Mele Kalikimaka’, which is apparently the Hawaiian equivalent of ‘Merry Christmas’, and came complete with a jaunty melody and the singers in leis (that is, those flowery necklace thingys). The sound levels were better than they were in previous years too, and with Trotman and Grimble’s perfect dictions, the songs were just lovely. The only downside for me was a man directly behind me who kept thumping his feet, thus giving me the feeling that I was on a train for most of the proceedings. At least he thumped in time to the music.
Sunday night saw Cadogan Hall filled for ‘West End Christmas’, which I have had no prior experience of, although Darren Bell’s Club 11 London use Cadogan Hall fairly regularly for their gigs. The assembled ‘cast’ for the concert was quite an impressive one, and songs being rattled off at quite an impressive rate, though it did seem the interval was reached very early, after about forty minutes (I’ve sat through sermons longer than that). Audience participation, all in the second half, involved singing ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’ (which made me wonder if we really do live in a post-Christian society), before a sing-song of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’, in a version lifted straight out of what ‘The BT Christmas Concert’ have been doing for years at the Royal Albert Hall: divide the auditorium into twelve sections, and have each section sing one of the sets of gifts. (There are, singing the whole song through, 364 gifts given over 12 days.) BT, at least, runs through the accompanying actions before the orchestra strikes up: the audience here merely ran with whatever their ‘leader’, one of the soloists assigned by conductor Alex Parker, had thought up.
Things got even more chaotic after that: Alice Fearn, the West End’s Elphaba in Wicked, given the task of blasting through ‘that’ Mariah Carey song, didn’t have a copy of the words supplied to her, resulting in an awkward silence from the stage at one point as the orchestra played on. It would have brought to mind Leslie Uggams’ infamous ‘June Is Bustin’ Out All Over’, still reshared and retweeted every first of June, years and years after the event. (She didn’t know the words, and was singing outdoors, so cue cards were made up for her, but the man holding them up slipped in the mud due to heavy rainfall the day before, so she just carried on, but scatting rather than singing the actual lyrics.)
Before it went awry though, there was much to enjoy, including a choral version of ‘Grown-Up Christmas List’, and Danielle Steers (Bat Out of Hell) performing ‘O Holy Night’ so beautifully. Steers returned to the stage in the second half for a duet with Mazz Murray (Chicago) of ‘Merry Christmas (War Is Over)’. Despite recent controversies, ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ was included in this programme, with Alexander Hanson pairing up with Janie Dee to give a positively warm rendering, even if in this day and age she could have just booked an Uber or something. This is England, remember: if one isn’t to venture outdoors just because it’s cold, one wouldn’t go anywhere at all at certain times of the year.
I thought they’d saved the best for last, though, and Reeve Carney (Hadestown) was the right person to knock out ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday’. He’s got an excellent concert stage presence, no doubt developed from his own gigs as a singer-songwriter. It took the combined efforts of the Church of England and the West End to get me in the festive mood, but at least I can say with some sincerity that I do wish you peace and joy this Christmas.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.