We approach the festive period, sometimes with excitement, often with dread but always with the familiar realisation that some traditions never change. Even the things that some love to hate, would be missed if they made no appearance at all. Neither mince pies, sprouts or turkey are everyone’s favourites, but somehow their absence would just make Christmas all the poorer.
And so as the build-up to Christmas began, we were reminded again of another annual festive tradition that I look forward to, sometimes with dread, sometimes with apprehension but always with excitement at the prospect of being surprised; one way or another. Yes it was time for the Annual School Christmas Celebration Concert Service Festival thing.
This year we were treated to a fabulous mixture of traditional Christmas carols, traditional Christmas readings, that old festive favourite “The Phantom Of the Opera” (I kid you not!) an extremely (shall we say) “enthusiastic” brass band and the head girl using the phrase “shameless hussies” from the pulpit. To add to the theatre of the event, we had stage crew and lighting but more about these later.
The evening started with the very traditional “Once In Royal David’s City” with a beautifully voiced Year 7 treble singing the obligatory solo first verse from the West Door. Everybody of course knows the first verse, but we had to keep quite whilst the treble sang for his supper. And then it was our turn. With song sheets in hand, we filled our lungs, opened our hearts, some opened their mouths and we began to sing.
Midway through the four verses that were ours, the lighting person, added tremendously to the atmosphere, helping to create that Christmasy feel, by plunging us all into darkness, mid-verse. This luminary stroke of genius enabled that time-honoured traditional practice, portrayed on so many traditional Victorian Christmas cards, that of carol singers, huddled together and using their mobile phones as torches. What other creative strokes of genius could the lighting person pull out of the bag? The night was young, I was afraid. For surely he had more surprises for us, his lucky victims.
Now, you know when you sit in the theatre just a couple of rows in front of the cough sweet rustler, that person who is totally unaware that their infernal sweetie wrapper rustling is causing any annoyance, and who, despite your initial, most sympathetic of tolerances towards, you now end up simply thinking “JUST CHOKE AND DIE so we can all get back to enjoying the show”, well we were subjected to a similar scenario. For behind us was a balcony atop which a lady was clicking away with her camera. Actually double-clicking. It was quite dark at times, the church was quite long and she was trying to photograph. Needless to say the shutter was staying open (one click) for ages before closing again (one more click). After taking many many pictures, she decided she wasn’t near enough, then chose the quietest moments to descend the stairs in her very clicky heels (more double clicks).
As I mentioned, the evening’s musical pieces were interspersed with readings, some Biblical, other secular and here, I was introduced to a new phenomenon. At the end of the first reading (taken from Isaiah), the congregation or audience depending on your point of view, applauded. Yes, the school’s headmaster, was applauded for doing no more than reading out loud, from the pulpit, words that someone else wrote. This trend continued with every vocal interlude from the pulpit being applauded. (Later I was scowled at for attempting to applaud the vicar when he gave a blessing – where is the consistency?)
Anyway, as I say, there were many musical offerings from various sections of the school, some of these were gifts to our ears and some of them, well they all tried very hard. The string ensemble’s rendition of “Walking In The Air” was, shall we say, not rushed. I had not before perceived this piece as a potential funeral dirge, but their innovative use of dragging the bow as slowly as possible across the strings definitely gave this piece new meaning for me, which I was able to contemplate at length. At tremendously long length.
A little moment of joy for me, was possible almost unnoticed by many. As I have told you the assembled masses had decided to applaud each of the readings, a point which did not go unnoticed by one child, who simple ended her rendition with “Thank You” as the applause began. Smart kid! She is assured of a future in show business.
Now if dear reader you think that my perception of the evening was negative then you are entirely wrong. Some elements of the evening were a sublime delight – the school’s unique Acapella choir are a joy to hear.
One of my favourite pieces of the evening was a performance by the Junior choir of “When Christmas Comes To Town” from the film The Polar Express. Firstly they resisted the all-too-often performed underhand tactic of bringing in ringers – Senior choir members who are short enough to be taken for Junior members. On this occasion we were treated to a small number of delightful Junior voices, each perfectly crisp and audible from the back of the Church, bringing to life this lovely song which easily became one of the highlights of the evening. And for all the right reasons. Well done to them all.
This had been preceded by a lovely piece which I never get tired of hearing – the wonderfully irreverent and witty John Julius Norwich’s “Twelve Days Of Christmas” parody letter, read by the head girl and boy. There’s something wonderfully naughty about hearing someone say “hussies” from the pulpit.
I was a little disappointed with the speed of the event. The long delays between each piece were sometimes inordinately long. Cake would have been nice. The ‘crew’ would wait for one choir or whatever to clear off, then wait some more for the next choir or whatever to get into place and then begin to rearrange microphones etc. All of this took forever and could, with a few simple steps have all been a lot quicker. One of my pet hates in any show, is scenes changes that take too long and indeed I do sometimes train stage in how to do these things a lot quicker. Even a simple “Enter from stage right and leave by stage left” would have helped. Or use the time during readings to quietly and efficiently get the next piece set up. Or give the audience cake to eat whilst they’re waiting.
Altogether there were five “audience participation” carols, each one accompanied by a new lighting design. I use the word “design” loosely. These enthusiastic and instant lighting states were the results of giving someone unfamiliar with lighting design, two things: new LED lighting to play with and way too much coffee. Subtlety was not in his luminary arsenal, but primary colours certainly were and what’s more, he wasn’t afraid to use them. His favoured weapon of choice was to wait until a carol or musical piece had started. To lull us into thinking he’d gone to the pub and then, with neither a hint of shame, or sadly timing, he’d suddenly push all the LEDs to bright green or blue. Thus momentarily distracting us from the assault upon our ears, by assaulting our eyes.
But despite what you think I may have felt about the evening, it was still wonderful, still Christmassy and still a pleasure to ….. Oh Cake!! They brought out lots of cake at the end. Mince pies (obviously); Panettone (getting better); Stollen (things were really beginning to pick up) and CHRISTMAS CAKE!!!
The evening was a delight. And I have a whole twelve months to recover and forget about it before we repeat the experience again.
And I wouldn’t miss it for the world.