Arranging an evening of Christmas music without leaving the audience questioning the wisdom of singing that last carol, or being overwhelmed by a surfeit of bells, snow and sentimentality calls for a certain amount of skill. Happily, musical director Duncan Aspden proved himself more than equal to the task. The result was a well balanced musical treat ranging from the familiar (often set to less familiar American tunes) to less well known pieces, such as Randal Thompson’s 'Alleluia'.
The concert opened in meditative mood with 'O magnum mysterium' (Morten Laurisden) and continued with a selection of carols sung by the choir alone or choir and audience combined. My personal favourite was 'Shepherds Rejoice', an English carol set to a tune in the American Primitive style by William Billings. From a quiet beginning, the first half built to an unashamedly upbeat 'Go Tell it on the Mountain'.
After a break for mulled wine and mince pies, we were treated to a bit of seasonal glitz in the shape of an updated version of the 1930s standard 'Winter Wonderland'. More carols ('We Three Kings', 'Joy to the World', 'Sweet was the Song' and 'Away in a Manger') and an impressive solo ('Steal Away') from organist Simon Lawford led to the climax of the evening - a virtuoso, no-holds-barred and distinctly bluesy rendering of the African-American spiritual 'Children Go Where I Send Thee'.
Each half of the concert was punctuated by the reading of a short story. This didn’t really work – partly because the material didn’t seem to be of a piece with the music and partly because the audience couldn’t see the reader and were left struggling with an inadequate public address system. That aside, this was another polished and versatile performance from the City of Oxford Choir (and the audience weren’t bad, either!)