Carol concert in aid of cancer charities

St Nicolas Church, Newbury, 5 December 2009

The annual Christmas concert organised in aid of cancer charities is for many people not only the beginning of the festive season, but an opportunity to hear fine music.

This year's concert, the eighth, did not disappoint. From beneath the tower, with lights dimmed, a single unaccompanied voice from the ranks of the Exultate Singers sang the first verse of Once in Royal David's City before the choir processed to the front of the church. Christmas had begun.

The concert always features a fine choir, but the Bristol-based Exultate Singers, conducted by David Ogden, are exceptional. They combine a beautiful balance of voices with vocal colour: warm, vividly beldned harmonies with a full, rich tone; as telling pianissimo as forte. Their choice of programme was pleasingly innovative, with work by John Tavener, John Rutter and Benjamin Britten interspersed with more traditional Christmas carols and music, and their harmonic enhancement gave an extra dimension to the carols sung by the congregation.

Their first piece, Tavener's God is with us, with is almost medieval feel, gave a taste of the delights to come, the leading tenor answered by the rest of hte choir and the voices led into the finale by sonorous organ chords. O Magnum Mysterium was movingly expressive, the swelling harmonies ending in a low, descending murmur. This Little Babe was classic Britten - a sparkling rendition here, short and staccato - and the singing of the traditional carol, In the Bleak Midwinter, was as crisp as frozen snow.

The customary embargo on applause after each piece, delivered by Newbury MP Richard Benyon in his introduction, was, of course, broken - this year for the musical interludes by young musicians. They showed extraordinary technique, confidence and maturity. Pianist Lucy Dundas, aged 11, a Royal College of Music student, played Bach and Mozart: a tour de force. Oxford music student Chris Terepin (cello), a Newbury Musician of the Year finalist, joined pianist Tara Copus, director of music at Abingdon Preparatory School, in a Cesar Franck sonata, played with mutual musical sympathy.

There was an interesting mix of readings by distinguished guests with local connections. In Advent 1955, Paul Dick, executive head of Kennet School, Thatcham and Trinity School, Newbury, relished John Betjeman's sideways glance at the secular hypocrisies of Christmas.

Radio and television presenter Mary Green, formerly with ITV and now working for the BBC, gave a spirited reading from Willy Russell's ever-popular Shirley Valentine: the part of Joseph in the school nativity play gave 'our Brian', clearly a difficult child, the chance to shine. Just not in the traditional way.

Robert Hall, every ince - and with every syllable - the heavyweight BBC newsman, read from Alan Titchmarsh's comic A New Nativity, which ponders on how the Christmas story would play in a contemporary setting.

The Cratchits' Christmas dinner scene from Dickens' A Christmas Carol was given an actor's delivery by Julian Fellowes, also a prominent screenwriter and novelist. In this moving extract, poverty never subsumes good-heartedness.

The Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Rev John Pritchard, brought out the menace in Herod's order to the Wise Men to report to him the whereabouts of the newly born baby Jesus, a reminder of hte the revolutionary nature of early Christianity and the threat it posed to the established political order.

The concert is organised by, and in aid of, the Newbury and District Cancer Care Trust and Macmillan Cancer Support. In her Christmas appeal, the patron of the Newbury Trust, the Countess of Carnavon, reminded the audience of the charities' very positive approach, which helps people live with cancer.

LIN WILKINSON