12th December 2003


How am I supposed to write a review when no word exists in the English language which adequately describes the beauty of Hayley's voice?

The concert was given by an array of star performers:

Conductor: Jonathan Willcocks
Soprano: Hayley Westenra
Harp: Catrin Finch

Massed Schools' Choir
The Philharmonia Chorus
Junior Academy Symphony Orchestra, Royal Academy of Music

Organ: Ian Curror

Special Guest Star: Sophie Ellis Bextor
Special Guest Appearance: Barney the purple dinosaur
Appearances by: Members of the West London School of Ballet
Presented by: James Allen, Gigi Morley and Pasty Palmer

In the presence of: HRH The Duchess of Gloucester GCVO

Not so much a concert; more a Christmas party:

The programme commenced at 7.30 with the traditional carol 'O Come all ye Faithful' arranged for Choir and Audience and was immediately followed by 'Ding Dong! Merrily on High' performed by the Philharmonia Chorus. These immediately got everyone into the festive spirit.

Following the announcements from the presenters we were given a rendition of 'White Christmas' by Hayley and the Philharmonia Chorus. There is something about Hayley's voice that is really very moving. It is rich and strong yet, at the same time, gentle and serene. That apparent contradiction is something that cannot be explained but which Hayley miraculously achieves every time she sings.

For those of you who have never been to the Royal Albert Hall, it may have had its acoustics difficulties over the years (now largely resolved) but, architecturally it is quite magnificent. I remember the first time I went there, perhaps 35 years ago. It was quite breathtaking. I imagine that, from the point of view of a young performer, and with a capacity audience of about 6500, it could be quite humbling but Hayley looked perfectly at home. As ever, her voice resounded around the auditorium and reduced so many of her audience virtually to tears. Such was her effect on me.

Hayley left the stage and the Junior Academy Symphony Orchestra then presented us with a rendition of 'Troika' from 'Lieutenant Kije' by Prokofiev. I found this particularly pleasing as it was a personal favourite within the classical repertoire for some years but perhaps I heard it a little too often until its novelty wore off. However, hearing it performed live rekindled my affection for it and the balance between the woodwind and brass sections accompanied by pizzicato strings was quite inspirational.

It was now the turn of the Choir and Audience as they joined together to sing 'Once in Royal David's City'. This was followed by the appearance (reluctantly at first) of Barney the dinosaur. It took much encouragement from presenters and children in the audience to persuade him to come out on stage but when he did, he performed with great enthusiasm to the obvious delight of all the children present (up to the age of about 99, that is!).

The Choir and Audience then sang 'Jingle Bells'. Okay, there was one exception. A certain member of the audience (me) was so excited by the prospect of the next item in the programme that he felt too emotional to perform. Sorry!

As Hayley returned to the stage, she gave that lovely little wave of hers. I hope she never stops doing that; it is becoming a bit of a trademark for her and is quite delightful. First, she sang 'Away In a Manger' and I was entranced. Then came 'Pokarekare Ana' which seems to sound better and better every time I hear it. This was the first song that I ever heard Hayley sing and I knew immediately that she was going to be a very special part of my life. I could not have known then quite how special. To hear it performed live (for the second time this week) was wonderful. This was a different arrangement to those I had heard before with a short unaccompanied section. In such a spacious venue, all that could be heard was Hayley's angelic voice. Even the excited children in the audience were silent. Were they totally enchanted too or was I just oblivious to them?

Following the interval, the stage was handed over to the night's special guest, Sophie Ellis Bextor who performed two songs from her current CD. She displayed a natural ability to sing and relate to the children in the front row at the same time. One child apparently passed to her a glow stick (which all the children were waving throughout the evening) and she had to ask how to make it work. This short fragmented conversation took place between lines of the song and made it a delightfully informal occasion.

The main purpose of the evening was to raise money for Sargent Cancer Care for Children. Envelopes had been left on every seat into which money could be donated. Collectors now came round the audience as the Orchestra and Philharmonia Chorus performed 'A Merry Little Christmas'. This took some time but I barely noticed as I was distracted by what was happening on the far side of the auditorium. I saw Hayley walking down the steps to the front row of the stalls where she sat amongst the audience signing autographs for those sitting nearby. Very soon there were children from all over the arena going over to her. Sadly, I no longer qualify by approximately forty years and so I had to remain in my seat and adore her from afar. From where I was, she appeared to have a natural way with the children who were lining up to meet her. She leant forward to each of them in turn to ask their name and remained there for some time looking perfectly happy to do it. A lovely thought, Hayley. I'm sure you made a lot of children very happy.

With the collection complete, the Choir and Audience sang 'The Twelve Days of Christmas' during which all the children in the audience had been encouraged with great enthusiasm by the Conductor to wave their glow stick every time we reached the line, 'five gold rings'. The effect was quite spectacular.

Next came an arrangement by Karl Jenkins of the traditional 'Crossing the Stone' for harp and orchestra. Catrin Finch holds the Royal Appointment as Harpist to HRH The Prince of Wales. 'Crossing the Stone' (Tros y garreg) is the 4th movement from 'Over the Stone', the double harp concerto commissioned by HRH The Prince of Wales. It was written by Karl Jenkins for Catrin and her teacher (and future mother-in-law) Elinor Bennet and premiered in Cardiff in 2002. The original traditional Welsh song tells of a soldier returning to Meirionydd and looking forward to seeing old friends again.

This was followed by the Choir and Audience's performance of 'Good King Wenceslas' and then the Children's Choir (490 in number) and harpist Catrin Finch performed 'Silent Night'. Only six days earlier I had heard Hayley sing this carol in Trafalgar Square and, in my mind, I could hear her singing it now. How I wish she had even though tonight's version was lovely as it was.

Next came 'Star Carol' arranged by John Rutter. This was perhaps the least known work of the evening but Conductor Jonathan Willcocks gave the audience a trial run and the final version was a total success and enjoyed by all.

The Choir and Audience continued with 'Hark! the Herald Angels Sing' and finally 'We Wish You a Merry Christmas'. For this last carol, all the presenters and performers returned to the stage and, thankfully, the microphone was passed to Hayley. I would like to think that I could detect her voice above so many others which were, by now, raising the roof (that won't help the acoustics!) but it was probably wishful thinking! I have no doubt that many of us in the audience were aware that this was the last time we were going to see Hayley on stage before she returns to New Zealand on Monday. Oh, how we shall miss her.

And so the evening drew to a close. Or so we thought. However, the events of the next hour including a very privileged and delightful meeting with Hayley and Jill (her mum) will have to wait for another time. I like to keep you in suspense! Keep watching......

Roger Mansbridge


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