Carols At The House – Sydney Philharmonia Choirs

Sydney Philharmonia Choirs. Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House. December 15,16, 17, 2023.

Reviewed : 15 December, 2023*

Photo : Keith Saunders

The Philharmonia Choirs’ Carols at The House returns to the Opera House after a renovation-and-pandemic enforced absence – and they’re doing it in style!  Five hundred and forty choristers and sixty-eight musicians wrap around the stage of the Concert Hall to present a program that is as varied as the fruit in Christmas puddings and the coloured baubles on Christmas trees.

The Symphony Chorus, VOX, the Philharmonia’s young adult ensemble, and the Christmas Choir (nearly four hundred keen singers from choirs across the city and beyond) have been rehearsing for weeks to bring this much-loved event back to the Opera House.

Presiding over them is conductor Dr Elizabeth Scott, Associate Music Director of the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, lecturer in Choral Conducting at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music (Sydney University) and much-loved Choral Director of the NSW Schools Spectacular.

Photo : Keith Saunders

Dr Scott’s vibrant energy and control reaches out from the dais to the orchestra on the stage and the tiered balconies of singers that surround it, right up to the dizzying height of the Concert Hall, where organist David Drury plays in splendid isolation! It is wonderful to hear the dazzling pipes of the organ back “in action” again.

Together they present traditional carols – “O Holy Night”, “O Come All Ye Faithful”; excerpts from the classics – Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” and Tchaikovsky’s “March of the Toy Soldiers”; northern hemisphere yuletide songs – Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas”; and Christmas music from our own composers – Elena Kats-Chernin and Kirli Saunders’ “Summer Together” and Luke Byrne’s “Capricorn”. It’s a diverse program, one that accentuates the universality of the Christmas message … love, hope and peace.

As well there are solos by versatile soprano Julie Lea Goodwin, whose beautiful voice and sense of fun bring extra warmth and glitter to the production, especially when she dons tinsel and reindeer glasses to lead the choirs in “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. Or reprises her recent performance in La bohème singing Musetta’s cheeky song, “Quando me’n vo”.

A different kind of theatrical depth comes from another famous voice, that of John Bell AO OBE. Actor, founder of Bell Shakespeare and director of both theatre and opera, Bell reads some literary “Christmas messages”. Australian poet John O’Brien’s Tangmalangaloo brings our local sense of humour to the fore, while A.A.Milne’s King John’s Christmas has a very English timbre and extracts from Dylan Thomas’ Memories of Christmas and The Steward of Christendom by Sebastian Barry add the gentleness of Welsh and Irish humour.

Photo : Keith Saunders

Compere of the 2023 production is the vivacious Vanessa Hughes, well-known to ABC Classic audiences as the presenter of Classic Drive and the Choir Hour. Just as personable as she is on air, and sporting an illuminated head band emblazoned with the word “alto”, Hughes establishes herself firmly as part of the performance, along with the audience whom she urges to join in! They do, with great enthusiasm, including a very rousing “Jingle Bells”.

Carols at the House 2023 brings a special part of the Sydney Philharmonia’s history back to the Concert Hall. With it comes the chance to celebrate the spirit of this special time of year and its messages of harmony and goodwill.

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine

*Opening performance