Review by Bob Fowler of Keswick Choral Society’s Festival of Christmas Music and Readings, 14 December 2021
At Christmastide we have the annual delight of meeting together at Crosthwaite Church to enjoy and participate in Keswick Choral Society’s Festival of Christmas Music and Readings – with the exception of 2020. The lead-up to Christmas 2021 was overshadowed by the news and anxiety created by the pandemic. Even as Keswickians were preparing to make their way to the church for the 2021 Festival, the news of the spread of the Omicron variant was a cause for concern. Was it safe to attend a large gathering of folk singing together in the closed atmosphere of the church? On arrival it was clear that precautions were being taken. As the church filled, the audience became a sea of folk wearing face masks and observing social distancing. There was also a considerable warmth and shared anticipation as we were welcomed by the vicar, the Reverend Andy Murphie.
The first carol, “Once in royal David’s city”, led by soprano Samantha Green, resonated throughout the great building. We were safely here! The choir, conducted by Ian Hare, sang ‘Of the Father’s heart begotten’ with 4th century words and 16th century music, arranged by David Willcocks.
There followed “Up good Christen folk and listen”…. Christus natus hodie. The Choir were in good voice after nearly two years without performance, and clearly enjoyed singing a wide selection of traditional and modern music.
The vicar read from the King James version of the Bible, St Matthew announcing the birth of Jesus. Then came “Joys seven”: mediaeval devotions to the joys of Mary, set by Stephen Cleobury – indeed a joyful piece! Then the audience rousingly joined in with “Unto us is born a Son”.
Laurence Durston-Smith’s reading of “Inside of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge” by William Wordsworth linked our Festival to the BBC’s annual Carols from King’s, and was the first of three poems by local writers to be included this year.
Soloist and choir sang excerpts from Handel’s “Messiah” with verve and passion, rounding off with a stirring “Hallelujah Chorus” – “rejoice greatly!” indeed. The first half ended with us all singing that traditional old English Carol “God rest you merry, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay”.
Part two began with the audience joining in that most loved hymn, “O little town of Bethlehem”, which concludes with a passionate invitation “O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel”. Next the choir addressed the shepherds: “O leave your sheep ……you’ll find Him laid within a simple stable …. Whose wonder shall be told’.
The Sans Day carol prefaced the next reading, “Inscrutable Angel’” by Bob Fowler. This verse gives a contemporary view of the Christmas Story and its consequences.
Harold Darke’s setting of Christina Rossetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter” followed, and the touching sentiments were sung with great tenderness, choir members taking two solo verses. It was nicely balanced by “Tres Magi Gentibus” – a jolly piece, sung with a twinkle. “O Come All Ye Faithful” next… everyone answering the invitation with vigour.
“A Crosthwaite Belfry Song”, a poem by Canon Rawnsley, followed.
Two more traditional old rhymes: “Nowell nowell, Sir Christemas”, and “Christmas is coming” – the choir rang out! Then “Hark the herald angels sing” had the whole assembly singing as one, and the evening finished with a lively “We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!”
Keswick Choral Society is to be congratulated on presenting such a heart-warming festival of Christmas music and readings, despite the times we are presently experiencing.
Ian Hare conducted the whole performance with elan, good humour and fine musicianship. Mike Town, as ever, accompanied brilliantly on the organ and piano. The audience departed happy! Joy was indeed unconfined.