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Christmas spirit?

Review: Christmas with The Idea of North & WASO •
Friday, 8 December, Perth Concert Hall •
Review by Tiffany Ha •

On a sticky Perth summer’s night, we found refuge in the spacious Perth Concert Hall, which was decked with bauble-shaped globes, hanging upstage from piercingly-bright red and green stage lights. The atmosphere was far from the usual sombre, dimmed WASO affair. Most of the orchestra players donned Santa hats and reindeer-ears, while the more hair-conscious of the bunch (here’s looking at you, cellos and double-basses) draped their festive headpieces over the scrolls of their instruments.

I was looking forward to this show; I am a singer, chorister, and lover of a cappella harmony. But, as any seasoned piano teacher with young students will tell you, it’s hard to maintain genuine enthusiasm for Christmas music. Sometimes even just the word “jin-gle” – said a little too rhythmically, with a hint of onomatopoeia – is enough to trigger anxious twitching. Despite this, I was optimistic about enjoying a feast of seasonal delights from some of our country’s finest musicians – The Idea of North, and WASO, conducted by Benjamin Northey.

Most of the orchestra players donned Santa hats and reindeer-ears, while the more hair-conscious of the bunch (here’s looking at you, cellos and double-basses) draped their festive headpieces over the scrolls of their instruments.

The evening began with a dramatic orchestral overture – a medley of Christmas carols featuring brass fanfare, clamorous bells, angelic harp and a choreographed light show. Nestled amongst the orchestra’s usual suspects was a kind of jazz ensemble (sax, piano, electric guitar, bass, bongos and a mysteriously hidden drum-kit) that came to the fore in more contemporary numbers such as “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”, “A Child Is Born”, and “Mary’s Boy Child”. The execution of these remarkable arrangements was incredibly polished – as you would expect from musicians of this calibre – but I felt that the busy-ness of the musical texture and the excitement of everything happening on stage made it hard to appreciate what we love most about The Idea of North: their singing.

And boy, can they sing. Emma Rule, soprano, floated above the texture with angelic grace. Naomi Crellin, alto and musical director, made these familiar melodies warm and inviting, like a traditional brandy custard. The group’s tenor, Nick Begbie, was the ultimate Christmas party MC – welcoming guests, cracking jokes, and blending seamlessly into all those spicy, tangy, magical four-part harmonies. And Luke Thompson, bass, was the rich, dark, meaty goodness that comes out of the bottom of a roast pan – surprising in depth and range, satisfying our musical tummies.

But for me, the real star atop the Christmas tree was Japanese vocal-percussion-extraordinaire Kaichiro Kitamura. He was introduced half-way through the program, after conductor Northey acknowledged that we could all hear a drum-kit but couldn’t find one on the stage. Kitamura revealed himself and took his place at the front of the stage. His ability was astonishing; with just his voice and a microphone he reproduced the sound of a full drum-kit, a passenger plane, a train, a vacuum cleaner. This guy was like a drum-machine and Foley studio rolled into one.

But for me, the real star atop the Christmas tree was Japanese vocal-percussion-extraordinaire Kaichiro Kitamura. This guy was like a drum-machine and Foley studio rolled into one.

Props to The Idea of North for avoiding the usual staleness of Christmas music events (there was not a candle in sight, thankfully) by including festive songs from cultures around the world. But as my Jewish boyfriend declared – after refusing to single himself out when Northey turned to the audience to ask who was celebrating Hanukkah this year – the inclusions felt rather tokenistic. Perhaps in 2017, as “woke” as we all are, it’s just too hard to ignore the insidiousness of capitalism as it overtakes the diminishing religious significance of Christmas. Being told several times that we could purchase the ensemble’s latest CD in the foyer also stirred up some leftish-agenda feelings deep within me. But hey, in the spirit of giving this season, I’ll give their CD a plug because if you’re anything like me, your copy of Mariah Carey’s Merry Christmas is getting worn out, and God forbid somebody should try to put on the Andre Rieu Christmas album.

Happy Holidays, everyone!

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