This annual concert, held at St Nicolas' Church in aid of Newbury and District Cancer Care Trust and Macmillan Cancer Support, is both a Christmas celebration and a cherished community event. Indeed, for many local people it marks the start of the festive season.
Bristol-based choir, the Exultate Singers, processed up the nave under dimmed lights as they and the congregation sang the opening carol: an atmospheric start to this ninth annual concert of carols, readings and music. A top-class choir that works nationally and internationally, they are now firm favourites, combining a beautiful balance of voices with precision, vocal colour and verbal clarity.
Conducted by David Ogden and accompanied by Richard Johnson, the choir's varied and unusual repertoire mixed traditional carols with lesser known and modern works, often sung unaccompanied. They opened with Bob Chilcott's Nova, Nova, sung with verve and attack, an exemplar of the glorious close harmonies this choir produces. Particularly moving were Bach's O Little One Sweet, slow and limpid, and I Wonder as I Wander, with its murmuring undertone. O Magnum Mysterium, which ended the first half, was beautifully sung, its changes of emphasis, accents and harmonies falling away to a final whisper, creating an absolutely still, spiritual mood.
The Lord Lieutenant of Berkshire, Mary Bayliss, gave the opening address and distinguished personalities with local connections read a varied selection of pieces. There was plenty of humour. The chairman of Newbury Spring Festival, David Livermore, read a Père Robert poem, which played to a contemporary child's Christmas (presents of video games and a bike), yet reminded them that ‘Christ is what Christmas is really about'.
Retired Kingsclere racehorse trainer Ian Balding, whose 2,000 wins over 40 years included the 1971 Derby winner Mill Reef, piled on the humour in A Present for the Wife, a faux Yorkshire accent pointing up both the stereotypes of a mean Yorkshireman and his even more stereotypical wife (feminists cover your ears). The Earl of Carnarvon, standing in at short notice for broadcaster and writer Julian Pettifer, who was ill, gave us the inside story on King Wenceslas as told by his page, an inveterate bore who, we learn, may have had a nefarious part in the story.
Chief Constable of Thames Valley Police, Sara Thornton, read Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Match Girl. This sentimental Victorian homily about desperate poverty in a season of plenty still shocks.
Sister Frances Dominica, founder of Helen House, the world's first children's hospice, and of Douglas House, read the passage from St Luke's Gospel that relates the birth of Jesus: the core of Christmas and an entirely fitting final reading.
Young musicians pleasingly – and literally – took centre stage, accompanied by pianist Sally Goodworth, staff accompanist at Reading and Brunel Universities, with an extensive recital career. Flautist Ellie Nugent, aged 16, Newbury Young Musician of the Year 2010, a member of the National Youth Orchestra and principal flautist in the Hampshire County Youth Orchestra, gave a dazzling account of Sir Hamilton Harty's In Ireland. Evoking the lyricism of Irish folk music, she played with confidence, vivacity and fluidity. Violinist Sophie Simpson, aged 17, a 2010 finalist and violin specialist musician at Wells Cathedral School, played a Fritz Kreisler introduction and allegro with panache and expressiveness.
Every day nine people in Berkshire are diagnosed with cancer. Sir Philip Wroughton, former Lord Lieutenant of Berkshire, gave the Christmas appeal on behalf of the two cancer charities benefiting from the concert. Their work is invaluable.
LIN WILKINSON, Newbury Today