United Kingdom Gabriel Jackson, The Christmas Story: Girl Choristers of Merton College (conductor, Carys Lane), Owen Chan & François Cloete (organ), The Choir of Merton College, Kyan Quartet, Oxford Contemporary Sinfonia / Benjamin Nicholas (conductor). Chapel of Merton College, Oxford, 10.12.2023. (JQ)
Back in 2015, I came to the Chapel of Merton College for the world premiere of Gabriel Jackson’s compelling work The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, given by soloists, the Choir of Merton College and the Oxford Contemporary Sinfonia under the direction of Benjamin Nicholas (review). A few years later, Nicholas directed a very fine recording of the work (review). Tonight, we heard Jackson’s musical response to the story of Christmas. This performance wasn’t the premiere; that had been given the previous evening at St John’s, Smith Square, London by the same forces.
The work, which was commissioned by the Warden and Fellows of Merton College, plays for just over an hour. It is scored for trebles (here, the Girl Choristers) accompanied by organ, SATB choir and an ensemble of eleven players, comprising flute, alto saxophone, 2 tenor trombones, bass trombone, percussion (1 player), 2 violins, viola, cello and double bass. The lone percussionist is kept very busy: I learned from the composer’s website that the player uses no fewer than eleven different instruments.
The libretto has been compiled by Dr Simon Jones, the Chaplain of Merton College. In recent years, Dr Jones has done an immense amount to foster the music at Merton, not least by commissioning a good number of new pieces for the choir. He compiled the libretto for The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ and when I reviewed the recording of that work, I commented that Jones had ‘fashioned a libretto of considerable liturgical discernment and literary merit’. It seems to me that this new libretto is no less successful. Jones has again brought together texts from a number of sources, including the four Gospels (principally that of St Luke) and the Book of Isaiah. He has also delved into the liturgy of Advent and Christmastide for Office Hymns, Responsories and Antiphons as well as the Nunc Dimittis and part of the Benedicite. Particularly important in the scheme of things are four poems by two contemporary writers, Penny Boxall (b.1987) and Mary Clark (b.1995). They are both associated with Merton College – one is a research Fellow and one is an alumna – and the poems, two by each writer, were written, I believe, specifically for this project. (Unfortunately, the programme booklet, though it contained the full text, had no information about the work itself and its genesis; that would have been very helpful given that this is a brand-new work. Such background information as I was able to discover in advance came from Gabriel Jackson’s website and a very useful short preview in the journal Choir and Organ.)
In that article in Choir and Organ Gabriel Jackson explained the thinking that had governed the instrumental scoring as ‘in part an attempt to reimagine the soundworld of Heinrich Schütz and other early German Baroque composers; indeed, the title itself, The Christmas Story, comes from Schütz’s 1664 work of the same name.’ Additionally, it seemed to me that, especially in the early part of the work, the writing for trombones and saxophone gave the music a deliberately primitive feel, as if we were listening to archaic instruments such as rams’ horns. Throughout the performance, the playing of the members of the Kyan Quartet and Oxford Contemporary Sinfonia was tremendously incisive. The instrumental parts are often very exposed but the players rose to all the challenges. My only slight concern was that there were times when the trombones and, especially, the saxophone seemed rather too prominent. Maybe this was just what the composer intended but in the fairly small acoustic it seemed to me that occasionally these instruments dominated the choir.
The Christmas Story is very firmly a work for choirs. Though there are many passages of Gospel narration, some of them lasting a few minutes, Jackson consciously avoided the use of an Evangelist soloist. Instead, these passages were set for the main choir, though occasionally we heard a solo voice from within the choir; all those solos were taken really well. I liked the variety with which Jackson set these narrative passages. Not only was there variety within the music itself – they were all different in character – but also, he intelligently varied the vocal forces so that sometimes the female voices sang, sometimes the male voices, and often the full choir. Furthermore, different instruments or combinations of them were employed both in these episodes and elsewhere, so there was always the added interest of changing instrumental colours (the imaginative use of the percussion battery was particularly impressive).
The four contemporary poems were entrusted to the Girl Choristers. The main choir and instrumental ensemble were placed at the chancel end of the chapel and the audience were seated in the choir stalls. The imposing and flexible Dobson organ is situated at the opposite end of the chapel and it was from there, out of our sight, that the choristers sang. This created an important and telling differentiation; it was quite startling (in a good way) when these young voices sang for the first time. The choristers’ music is in unison throughout but the organ accompaniments are very varied – I loved the swirling accompaniment, which sounded almost tipsy at times, when the girls sang Penny Boxall’s poem ‘A Guest at Cana’ after the Gospel narrative of the miracle of the water being changed to wine. Throughout the performance I was mightily impressed by the singing of the Girl Choristers. I presume they sang under the direction of their conductor, Carys Lane (I couldn’t see them in action of course) and the discipline of their singing ensured consistent unanimity. Furthermore, their voices rang out clearly and confidently and the sheer sound of their voices was a delight. Organists Owen Chan and François Cloete supported them expertly.
The Christmas Story plays continuously but is divided into four sections: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany (which also includes another revelation of Christ, the marriage feast at Cana), and Candlemas. The narrative was perceptively selected from the Gospels so as to give a well-paced account of events. The poems provided moments of reflection while Simon Jones had interpolated such texts as the Christmastide Antiphons in such a way that a unified, organic whole was presented. Given the absence of a solo narrator it was important that the diction of the Merton College Choir was crystal clear; the singers passed that test with flying colours. Though I had the full text in front of me I rarely needed to consult it. Throughout the evening their singing was as accomplished, disciplined and committed as we have come to expect from this very fine choir.
Certain episodes particularly impressed me. One such, perhaps my favourite part of the whole work at first hearing, was the slow, rapt setting of ‘O magnum mysterium’. Here, the only instrument accompanying the choir was the vibraphone. The addition of its distinctive timbre was a masterstroke. I was also impressed by the pronounced exaltation in the music at the point where, having announced the birth of Christ to the shepherds, the angels sing ‘Glory to God in the highest’. Shortly afterwards, the unaccompanied choir sang the Magnificat antiphon for the Second Vespers of the Epiphany (‘Tribus miraculis ornatum’). Here, Jackson’s slow, expressive music fitted the words like a glove. Later, in the Candlemas section, the Nunc dimittis came in its rightful place in St Luke’s narrative. I loved the music to which Jackson set this canticle. Most of the text was carried, on slow and solemn music, by the tenors and basses with a beautifully judged accompaniment from the trombones. Eventually, the female voices took over before we heard the full choir singing the radiant music to which ‘et gloriam plebis tuæ Israel’ was set; this splendid conclusion was enhanced by the addition of tubular bells.
There were two moments which struck me as dramatic coups. One occurred after the choir had sung ‘O magnum mysterium’ at the end of the Christmas section. That hushed music was followed immediately by a short full-organ paean which acted as an exultant bridge to the Epiphany section. The impact of this music was all the greater since it was completely unexpected. The second coup occurred as the work drew to its close with a setting of ‘O nata lux de lumine’. Up to this point we had not heard the full ensemble performing together, but now the Girl Choristers processed in from the rear of the chapel, singing as they did so. They took up a position right in front of the main choir. Jackson’s music for this episode was warm, expansive and affirmative, though even here he paused along the way a couple of times to introduce softer, reflective moments which provided excellent contrast. This final ensemble formed a most satisfying conclusion to The Christmas Story.
By my watch, the work played for some 74 minutes. My attention was held throughout. In large part this was due to the musical invention which was consistently imaginative. Through a marvellous combination of words and music Jackson and his collaborators have created a compelling whole. Equally important in holding my attention, though, was the assured and committed nature of the performance. Singers and players were right on top of the music and projected it expertly. I overheard comments before the concert to the effect that the premiere performance the previous night had gone very well. I suspect that those of us who attended this second performance will have benefitted from the confidence that the London performance must have given everyone. Benjamin Nicholas had clearly prepared his forces with great thoroughness. I had a good view of him during the performance and noted that his conducting was at all times calm and clear; just what you want with a new work.
The Christmas Story is a significant work, not least because words and music speak very directly to those who listen to it. From the very warm reception of the audience, it was clear to me that it had made its mark. On the two days following this concert the work is to be recorded by these performers. I understand that Delphian Records plan to issue the recording in time for Christmas 2024 and I am looking forward keenly to expanding my appreciation of The Christmas Story by repeated listening when it appears on CD.