Nicola Lisle hears more about Monday’s Britten double bill at the SJE

The logistics of fitting 140 singers and a small orchestra into the performance area at East Oxford’s church of St John the Evangelist might seem a little daunting to some.

But Mel Houldershaw, who is conducting Britten’s St Nicolas and A Ceremony of Carols there next week, is unfazed.

“I think that might be a record!” she chuckles.

“The Oxford Bach Choir came to the SJE and I think they were 120. The Oxford Harmonic Choir also did a concert there, and they’re also about 120.

“The orchestra for St Nicolas is only strings and percussion, so it’s not a full symphony orchestra. So we’ll have percussion on one side, piano on the other and the strings in the middle.”

Mel is used to coping with large forces, having conducted joint concerts with the two East Oxford choirs she formed in the early 90s and various choirs from Oxford’s twin towns, and she revels in the sheer joy of bringing so many musicians together.

For the Britten double bill next week, the East Oxford Community Choir and East Oxford Youth Choir are being joined by the Carl von Ossietzky choir from Bonn, and when we meet to chat about it, Mel is positively bubbling with enthusiasm.

“The wonderful thing about this German choir is that it has children from 10 up to 19, which is their school age, plus their parents and teachers.

“Isn’t that special? I don’t think you get that very often.

“Last year we went over to Bonn and did Carmina Burana for their 50th anniversary, and they were all very welcoming and looked after us beautifully.

“So it’s one of those wonderful relationships that’s very special in music.”

Britten’s cantata St Nicolas traces the legendary of life of St Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra, Lycia, and was written for amateur performers plus a professional tenor soloist to sing the title role, a professional string quartet and professional percussionists.

The tenor soloist next week is Oxford graduate Robin Whitehouse, who has sung with the East Oxford Community Choir on several previous occasions.

“I’ve known Robin since 2005,” Mel says.

“We booked him for Mendelssohn’s Paulus a couple of years ago, and he was amazing, but he seems to have improved even from there. He’s really growing into his voice, which is fantastic.

“He told me this is a role he’s coveted for many years and could he please do it, so I think I’ve made his Christmas!”

A Ceremony of Carols is, of course, a perennial favourite. Originally written for treble voices, it will be sung here in the SATB version, with the young singers performing some of the movements on their own.

“I’m not sure what I think of St Nicolas,” Mel admits. “We did it way back, maybe in 1999, and it grew on me, and it’s doing the same this time. Twentieth century music is like that, though – you either love it, or it takes a while for you to grab hold of it. But A Ceremony of Carols has always been a favourite of mine.

“The Britten pieces are only half an hour each so to end the evening we will do Stille Nacht in German with the congregation, then Hark the Herald.”

With 140 voices, plus the congregation, that promises to be a stirring finale.

Where and when
Britten: St Nicolas and A Ceremony of Carols
St John the Evangelist Church, Iffley Road, Oxford
December 21, 7.30pm 01865 305305