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Christmas Presence

Gateshead, The Sage - Thursday 14th December 2006

Hayley Westenra, Central Newcastle High School Choir, The Christmas Presence Orchestra


Concert Report: by Andrew Fenning

Located on the river front, adjacent to the Gateshead Millenium and Tyne Bridges, ‘The Sage’ is quite a landmark, to say the least! It has some very dramatic architecture including an arched shell-like roof. I was delighted to be able to attend this venue for the first time, to witness Hayley performing with ‘Northern Sinfonia’ (aka “The Christmas Presence Orchestra”) one of Europe’s most exciting chamber orchestras and the Central Newcastle High School Choir. My parents accompanied me to tonight’s concert- they were completely surprised when I presented them with the concert tickets only a few days earlier! We were seated in the last 3 seats to the left of the front row of the stalls in Seats "A30" to "A32". A couple of my friends were also present at the concert, seated on level 2 of the auditorium. Tonight’s concert sounded like the ultimate Christmas concert- one I was certainly not going to miss! There was a pedal harp directly in front of us on the stage and the harpist was in the process of tuning when we arrived. I was amazed to notice that there were 7 pedals (apparently one for each note of the diatonic C major scale).

The Christmas Presence Orchestra opened up the evening with the Christmas Presence Overture- ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ and proceeded to perform other pieces such as ‘A Christmas Carnival’ and ‘Troika’ which is very well known from Prokofiev’s ‘Lieutenant Kije’ suite. The Central Newcastle High School Choir joined with the Orchestra to recite 7 other pieces which included Tchaikovsky’s ‘Waltz of the Snowflakes' from 'The Nutcracker’; the traditional French piece entitled: ‘Il Est Ne Le Divin Enfant’ and ‘The Little Drummer Boy’. The “crème de la crème” of performers was still yet to appear though… The anticipation of waiting for Hayley to appear on stage was absolutely thrilling! Brian Willetts, the ‘Christmas Presence’ Event Co-ordinator eventually appeared and introduced Hayley to the stage with the following words:

“Rising to the dizzy heights of fame with a crate full of platinum discs and a string full of high profile performances with the likes of Andrea Bocelli, José Carreras and Bryn Terfel in some of the world’s finest concert halls, Hayley Westenra has become one of the most gifted young voices. How appropriate for tonight’s concert that ‘The Times’ description is that Hayley looks like and sounds like an angel. Ladies and gentlemen, will you please welcome Hayley Westenra.”

As we were sitting to the left of the front row of the stalls, we were probably the first people to see Hayley enter out onto the stage in her black diamanté dress… Wow! We were therefore also the first people to start applauding for Hayley too! After about 25 seconds of applause, Hayley recited ‘Ave Maria’ (Schubert) beautifully, with her clear, bell-like tones. The stringed section of the Orchestra accompanied her with warm, mellow, rich tones and later the woodwind section added greater depth to the piece. Quite Beautiful! Enthusiastic applause followed and Hayley thanked the audience in a soft voice. She then requested the sound desk manager to turn her monitor mix level down a fraction. I hadn’t been aware of any obvious problems with the sound mix myself , since there was no distortion or feedback on the microphones and we were sitting in close vicinity of Hayley's monitor on the left of the stage. I guess the sound level was however not ideal for Hayley up on the stage. Hayley was keen to connect with her audience from the outset of her performance and so started chatting to the audience after her first piece:

“How is everyone… Good? Getting into the Christmas spirit I hope? It’s not far off now, I’m going back home this Sunday and it has kind of crept up on me. I have to pack up my whole flat- I have Saturday to do it (followed by lots of "infectious Hayley giggles")… but I’m really looking forward to being with my family and being with my younger brother and sister back home. I’m really looking forward to seeing them again, I haven’t seen them for ages and they’ve grown up too quickly. Anyway this next song that I’d like to sing is one I discovered on a CD a while ago, actually quite a number of years ago and I just fell in love with the song. It’s a real gem, it’s ‘Mary Did You Know?’

The piano introduction was accompanied by a violin and this piece flowed smoothly. Hayley’s vocals were blended with some glorious playing by the harpist. Applause followed and by this point, the first ten minutes of Hayley’s set had already passed. Hayley treated us to a unique rendition of ‘Gabriel’s Message’. She sang the first verse a cappella which was divine! The second verse, included accompaniment from the strings, harp and woodwind sections of the orchestra. There were also some very enchanting “bell sounds” produced on a carillon (keyboard device which plays notes like bells) in front of us too. It was obvious that Hayley in her typical manner, had quickly managed to establish a strong rapport with her audience. The audience conveyed their appreciation, before she proceeded to explain:

“I believe this next song was the first song to ever be broadcast on a Christmas radio service. I thought you might be interested to know that, it’s ‘O Holy Night’ ”

A cold chill was conveyed through the sound of a flute, the carillon and the harp in this piece. Gradually the woodwind and stringed section added warmth to the piece. The brass section of the Orchestra really emphasised the crescendi and conveyed the climax of the piece, which I imagined was like taking a look across the horizon from a scenic vantage point- we’re talking about real grandeur here! . I could really picture the nativity scene as depicted in The Bible. I’ve never heard a more beautiful rendition on this piece before- Honestly! The blend of Hayley’s voice with the warm tones produced by orchestra… was sheer beauty! I was left feeling utterly speechless and quite spiritually uplifted! Wow… There was a really triumphant ending to this piece on the strings too. Magnificent! Rapturous applause followed for over 2 minutes.. as Hayley left the stage. The Christmas Presence Orchestra proceeded to play the ‘Christmas Overture’ before Brian Willetts reappeared back on stage. He announced:

“Ladies and gentleman, before you prepare to raise a glass of a well earned drink, you can do some singing yourselves. Will you join us with Hayley, the Choir and the Orchestra in singing ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ ?”…

Hayley instructed the audience to find the words to the carols in the Concert Programme on page 14. She encouraged us, telling us:

“You’d better sing… (followed by lots of more “infectious Hayley giggles”). Don’t leave me up here singing by myself!”

After the introduction was played by the stringed section of the Orchestra, Hayley led the audience very eloquently in singing ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’. This was quite a unique and wonderful experience! In the “Sing Choirs of Angels” verse, the Choir joined in adding all their harmonies and the trumpets were really asounding! Some members of the audience started to applaud Hayley, the Choir and the Orchestra, after this verse anticipating the end of the carol, but Hayley, the Choir and the Orchestra were not done!… The final verse, “Yea Lord we greet Thee…” was included, which I thought was rather special… The Orchestra really conveyed a climax in the last verse and Hayley encouraged us, the audience for our participation, remarking, “very good!" for our valiant efforts! An interval of approximately 20 minutes then followed.

Hayley returned to the stage in her yellow dress and jested that she nearly knocked the piano off the stage as she walked through the narrow passage between the piano and the front of the stage…"Whoops!" she joked and then explained:

“This next song is one of my favourites actually. It’s got two titles, the first is ‘The Christmas Song’ and the second is, ‘Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire’… sounds pretty good to me!”

The introduction to this piece sounded really rich and full with the tones from the strings, harp and woodwind section. All the wonder and dreams of Christmas were captured by the combination of the dream-like tones of Hayley's voice, the harp and the carillon. The song lyrics conveyed images of “turkey and mistletoe and folk dressing up like eskimos… and lots of toys and goodies on Santa’s sleigh…” No matter what age one was, it was so easy to feel just like one of the "tiny tots with eyes all a glow" which Hayley sang about in this piece! The words, “and so I’m offering this simple phrase to kids from 1 to 92... athough it’s been said many times, many ways… Merry Christmas to you…” seemed so apt, since we’re probably all children at heart and no matter what age we are. We all love to hear the words “Merry Christmas” over and over again too! I was amused to hear the woodwind section of the Orchestra playing the bars of ‘Jingle Bells’ as the song very gradually drew to a close. Hayley was rewarded with loud applause and lots of “awws….” from the audience. Hayley then told us: “This is one you should know…” as she sang the opening bars to ‘Silent Night’ with the harp and carillon adding some more dream-like qualities, as the strings added warmth to the contemplative mood of the piece. The brass section added some real accents to what was simply a majestic piece of music. Hayley enchanted us all and lulled us into a hush!

A piano introduction opened, ‘Who Would Imagine a King?’ Out of all of the highly emotive pieces performed tonight, this is the piece that gave me goose pimples! I could also feel my eyes welling up during this piece too… ‘Away In A Manger’ followed with a beautiful introduction on the strings. Hayley’s voice was as bright as a star in the night sky. The Choir joined Hayley in singing the verse “Be near me Lord Jesus” The harmonies were absolutely beautiful. Hayley then informed that:

“This next song I’d like to sing for you is one I usually sing with my sister back home in New Zealand. Yes, I have a sister, she’s 16 now, she’s growing up. It’s quite scarey. Gosh! It means I’m getting older as well! But actually both my brother and sister sing with me when I’m back home and yes this will bring back a few memories. This is ‘Do You Hear What I Hear?’ ”

I was delighted that Hayley had chosen to include this song in her repertoire tonight, because this is one of my all time favourite "Hayley songs". An introduction on the strings and woodwind sections conveyed the night wind… During the first verse “Said the night wind to the little lamb, Do you see what I see?”, the carillon echoed Hayley’s ‘Do you see what I See?’ where Sophie would normally sing the little echo line. “Way up in the sky little lamb… a star dancing in the night with a tail as big as a kite…” There was some really wonderful harp and “magical” carillon playing during this piece. In the second verse, “Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy, Do you hear what I hear?” a clarinet played Hayley’s “Do you hear what I hear?” echo line, before the rest of the verse “Ringing through the sky shepherd boy, a song way high above the trees with a voice as big as the sea”. For the third verse, “Said the shepherd boy to the mighty King, do you know what I know?”, the carillon and a xylophone were used to play the echo line, before the words, “In your palace wall mighty King, Do you know what I know? A Child, shivers in the cold, let us bring Him silver and gold…” In the final verse, “Said the King to the people everywhere, listen to what I say… all the instruments which were previously used to play the echo lines, played the final echo line together, before the words, “Pray for peace people everywhere, listen to what I say… The Child sleeping in the night, He will bring us goodness and light…” Rapturous applause echoed around the auditorium and Hayley thanked the audience before leaving the stage.

The Orchestra then played a very cheerful medley consisting of:'Joy to The World’; ‘Deck The Halls’; ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’; ‘Good King Wenceslas’; ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’; ‘Silent Night’; ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ before Brian Willetts returned to the stage for the final time that evening. He announced:

“Well ladies and gentlemen, I’m sure you will agree that we’ve had a wonderful evening of music. I hope you’ve enjoyed yourselves now that you have become part of the Christmas Presence family. I would invite you to come back next year and enjoy an equally good concert, when we come together next year. It wouldn’t be complete without a few thank yous… I’d like the thank the wonderful Christmas Presence Choir; the wonderful and magnificent Orchestra, a very special thank you to conductor Andrew Greenwood. To finish the evening off we’re going to join with Hayley Westenra, the Orchestra, the Chorus and Andrew and sing that wonderful Christmas Carol ‘Hark The Herald Angels Sing’. I think I’ll invite you to stand if you would and I’ll invite Hayley back.”

Hayley returned to the stage and again led the audience in singing. This time she sang an angelic ‘Hark The Herald Angels Sing’ I thought that this was a beautiful Christmas carol to conclude a celestial evening of music. Hayley literally ended the evening on a high, when she sang the last word “King” on a high “G”. In fact the audience didn’t want to go home and so applauded loudly and whistled until Hayley reappeared for one more number in the form of, ‘I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas’. Hayley encouraged the audience to join in and sing the piece through a second time, which was absolutely delightful! Hayley ended the concert by thanking the audience with: “Thank you very much and Merry Christmas!” We could have easily stayed and sang Christmas carols all night! Hayley, we're so proud of you... Thank you, God Bless and Merry Christmas! xxx




source : hwi
credits : review by andrew fenning
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