Classical & Opera: Peace and inspiration

Christmas choral concerts don't have to be all `Jingle Bells' and `The Messiah'. Composer Judith Weir has devised an eclectic and pleasing mix of old and new music to be performed at Christ Church, Spitalfields

If you want to hear the pristine sound of Christmas voices in full flight and have had your fill of Handel's Messiah, Bach's Christmas Oratorio, then undoubtedly the place to head is the enchanting setting of Nicholas Hawksmoor's Christ Church in Spitalfields. Already renowned for its invigorating blend of the old and new during its large-scale June festival, Christ Church launched its first Winter mini-fest last year.

Concerts by Candlelight proved to be a roaring success, so the decision was made to continue with the tradition. This December, four early-evening concerts have been scheduled and the final two take place this week when the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge and the Joyful Company of Singers perform on Monday 22 and Tuesday 23 December, respectively.

"Once again, I think Christ Church is proving that there is an eager music audience out there for something that is a little different," comments the festival's artistic director, the composer Judith Weir. "I believe London's music lovers deserve something slightly more genuine than the formulaic "Jingle Bells" hotchpotch. And it's not as if there isn't a lack of enthralling repertoire to choose from. There are great English Renaissance and 20th-century Christmas traditions to explore, and Clare College Choir do just that by jumping from a number of items by William Byrd to extracts from Vaughan Williams' Hodie, Britten's Ceremony of Carols and Maxwell Davies' O magnum mysterium.

"Two further very different settings of O magnum feature in the Joyful Company's evening, one by Victoria and the other by Poulenc, whilst their concert is even more wide-ranging, taking in Gabrieli, Sweelinck, Rachmaninov and Barber." Judith Weir is also adamant that, these days, Christmas means many different things to many different people, "and so the material isn't expressly all directly Christian in inspiration, though much of it obviously is. The real intention was to come up with balanced menus where, for an hour, one can take a breather from the hectic pace of shopping or entertaining and enjoy some peaceful and inspirational music."

Yet Judith Weir's role has not simply been in the organisational capacity, for she has also composed a new carol of her own for the Joyful Company's concert involving audience participation. "It's nothing too intellectual," she says, modestly, "just three lines from William Blake which I've chosen - `Illuminare Jerusalem' - in which everyone can join with a plainsong reprise. Still, it was the idea of illumination which got me - light at the darkest time of the year."

For anyone wishing to experience two of our finest choirs, a pre-festive visit to Christ Church would seem to be the enlightened choice.

The choir of Clare College, Cambridge will perform on 22 Dec and the Joyful Company of Singers on 23 Dec at Christ Church, Spitalfields, 6.30pm

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