A Concert of Christmas Songs and Carols

‘Viva voce’ is commonly used in English to mean an oral as against a written test: appropriate, because this event was a test for the new choir called Viva Voce, being their first major public appearance and their first Christmas concert.

The director of Viva Voce, Jean Chambers, ran the Poole & Parkstone Singers for years, leaving because she had, in her own words, ‘decided to form her own choir before she became too old!’ It was neither a secret nor a surprise that a considerable proportion of those who had sung under her direction wanted to move with her. Starting a new choir must be a risky venture, but such a show of loyalty has given Viva Voce a flying start, as this concert clearly demonstrated.

Jean’s trademark has always been an extremely well-disciplined choir. This showed in obvious things like strong entries, crisp finishes and precise harmonies, as well as in the clean rhythms of upbeat numbers like ‘Sleigh ride’ and ‘Rocking around the Christmas tree’. It was clear in more subtle ways, too: for example, in the dynamics of ‘The three kings’ (with a fine solo from John Turner) or of ‘I heard the bells on Christmas day’.

The choir has also been trained to make a very fine sound; at the risk of comparing them to a Scotch whisky, ‘mellow’ and ‘well-blended’ are the two words that come to mind. Their musicality was nowhere better demonstrated than in an accomplished, unaccompanied performance of the difficult ‘Carol of the bells’. The contraltos often don’t get the credit they deserve, but they are in many ways the foundation of this choir and were outstanding in several numbers, notably the lovely ‘Cantique de Noel’ (‘O holy night’).

The programme was chosen to give the audience plenty of variety, which also showed off the choir’s versatility: straight from ‘Silent night’ into ‘Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer’, for example. There were four carols with audience participation, which slightly broke the spell but gave us all a chance to sing old favourites. In fact, most of the numbers were familiar, although the programme included a song called ‘Candlelight’, which was surely new to us all and which had been arranged by a member of the choir, Steve Potter.

If one had a criticism of the performance, it would be that the diction was not always as clear as it might have been. So many of the words were well-known that it didn’t matter, but in the comic and less familiar ‘Grandma’s killer fruitcake’, much of the humour was lost.

Viva Voce has a more fundamental problem, one which it shares with most choirs and musical theatre companies: a chronic lack of men. No criticism of the men who were singing in this concert, but there were only eight of them, outnumbered by something like 22 women. It was not so much of a problem where the men had distinctive parts at the right pitch (‘Silver bells’ and ‘I wish you Christmas’, for example) but in the more demanding numbers like ‘Winter wonderland’ and, especially, ‘Were you there’, where the melody interchanges between the men and the women, the men didn’t come off well. It’s a sacrilegious suggestion and will probably never happen, but would Viva Voce be more effective as an all-female choir?

At the interval I commented that of the sixteen numbers in the first half, not one of them had been a dud. Another fifteen numbers in the second half and I was saying the same thing. Viva Voce were that good, and the entertainment had been that enjoyable.