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Sing Christmas cheer at ‘A CSO Christmas’

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violinYou either love them or you don’t but you have to admit there’s something kinda special about Christmas carols sung live and accompanied by a full orchestra, particularly in the ANU’s Llewllyn Hall. Then again, no one would know because this is the first year that the Canberra Symphony Orchestra has held a musical event of this kind. And it’s going to be spectacular! 

What’s more it will also feature the debut performance of a new Christmas carol that’s not yet fell on the ears of any Canberran. Written and composed especially with the sweltering Aussie Christmas in mind, A touch of Christmas is a joyful Australian Christmas carol that not only celebrate what Christmas means to many Australian children and families but captures the true essence of Christmas down under whether living in the city or the bush.

Ahead of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra’s inaugural Christmas Concert, Emily Allen and Jessica Schumann chatted with the three very talented young women, Sally Greenaway, Rachel Beck and 18 year old Cara Bessey, about their involvement in the concert, classical arts, one very special Christmas carol and favourite Christmas memories.

It’s lovely to see three talented women taking to the stage for the CSO’s Christmas with local Canberran Tanya Kiermaier also contributing to the collaboration of Sally’s carol. What positive message do you believe it sends to other young women who may be looking to purse a career in the classical arts?

Sally Greenaway: I think it’s helpful to pause for a moment as ask yourself how many Australian composers can you name? And if we consider gender equality, how many female Australian composers can you name? If you couldn’t think of many (or any) then consider us formally introduced—I hope you enjoy the music!

I am not sure that choosing a career in the arts is something I’d recommend, because the industry is difficult to break into, difficult to sustain and pushes you to your very limits—like an extreme sport but for your creative and mental health. But I do believe in following your own path, working hard, contributing to the betterment of our community and creating a life’s work that is a legacy for current and future generations.

What significance do you believe women hold in the arts?

Rachel Beck: We are extremely significant.

Cara Bessey: I believe women have a big significance in the arts just like men also. The great thing about the arts is that it is so gender equal, there’s always roles for both men and women. But I do really love musical theatre and as a woman it’s so fantastic to be able to express myself so freely in to many different characters and that’s the beauty of the arts, there’s always such a mix of things you can do.

Sally, do you know of any other Australian female composers who have experienced a similar experience to your own composition process? That is speaking directly with the orchestra etc…

Sally: The arts are constantly facing tough economic times and opportunities for composers to work with orchestras are very rare and usually competitive. That’s what makes this opportunity so unique and special – to be able to work directly with a professional orchestra is a big deal for a composer. It’s not like we can rock up to a rehearsal with a new piece and ask the orchestra to play it – we have to be invited, and that almost never happens. Woden Valley Youth Choir are passionate about celebrating Australian music, and this concert with the Canberra Symphony Orchestra is the perfect opportunity to share and celebrate it with a receptive and supportive audience.

Growing up as a child, what fond memories do you have of your childhood Christmases? 

Cara: My fond Christmas memory would be having my little brother knock on my bedroom door really early in the morning to go out and look at the presents under the tree. Then we would grab our stockings and open up the presents in those until out parents woke up for the rest of the presents under the tree!

Rachel: Mine would be going hunting in a dusty ute along the tracks in Parkes NSW looking for the perfect pine tree with my cousins and their dog.

Sally: My family moved a lot when I was a kid. I have had Christmases down on the family farm in South Gippsland (Victoria), Christmases in Germany and Christmases in Canberra. Each of them are very different.

I remember fondly the wonderful Christmas markets in Germany – being amazed at the endless stalls that are filled with a huge assortment of traditional wooden Christmas decorations, eating Lebkuchen (gingerbread) and roasted chestnuts and building snowmen! This experience, together with the traditional European carols makes sense to me – it brings out the mystery and magic of Christmas like a Brothers Grimm fairytale!

Aussie Christmases have been equally memorable because of the important role of family and friends – there is nothing more wonderful than sitting out on the deck at the end of a hot long day and the smell of home cooked a barbecue dinner!

Typically, the images we see of Christmas are often of snow, reindeers and pine trees yet here in Australia it is very much the opposite. How did yourself and Tanya come about the lyrics, ‘It’s Christmas time and Summer’s in the air, with humming grasslands that sway amid the breeze’?

Sally: It’s a fact that the majority of Carols by Candlelight concerts around Australia perform mostly European and American carols – which definitely are wonderful pieces of music. But culturally we need our own identity and I am so grateful to Woden Valley Youth Choir and their director Alpha Gregory for contributing to Australian music and our culture by commissioning new carols.

When re-composing the work for the Canberra Symphony Orchestra, I wanted to evoke the magic and wonderment of Christmas, as well as make full use of the incredible wealth and experience of the players in the Orchestra. 

At first it was quite challenging to orchestrate because the original version of the song, which was written for choir and piano accompaniment, had influences of Jazz, Latin and Pop music. The orchestral version to me is a completely new imagining of the melodic/lyric and harmonic material, and makes full use of the colour combinations and power an orchestra brings to the picture. It certainly sound very filmic in this iteration.

With a mix of both modern and traditional carols to be performed in the concert, what is your absolute favourite?

Rachel: O Holy Night.

Cara: I think my favourite Christmas Carol would be Rudolph The Red Nose Reindeer. It’s such a cute, fun song that everyone knows and no matter what you will always sing along.

Sally, you’ve mentioned that you don’t necessarily have a favourite Christmas carol, which led you to write your own while living in London. Where did you draw the inspiration from? 

Sally: A Touch of Christmas was commissioned by Woden Valley Youth Choir in 2010 when I was living in London studying at the Royal College of Music. I was just about to experience a traditional European Christmas: cold, lots of snow, dark by 4pm, Christmas markets, mulled wine and wintery comfort-food!

But Australia’s experience of Christmas is such a stark contrast, and as beautiful as the traditional European and American Christmas carols are, they are not at all representative of our Aussie sweltering Summer Christmases! I wanted to write a piece that celebrated peace, family and friends, and our beautiful country and landscapes, from the City to the Bush.

When writing the lyrics, I collaborated via email with Canberra writer Tanya Kiermaier. Her wonderful word-imagery is perfect for children to sing: ‘It’s Christmas time and Summer’s in the air, with humming grasslands that sway amid the breeze…‘.

In recent years, Christmas has become overwhelmingly commercialised. What do you hope your carol will evoke in Canberras during the Christmas season? 

Sally: Christmas is not about buying presents! To me, it is about children and childhood, memories and reflection, peace and tolerance, and families and friends. The lyrics in A Touch of Christmas explore these themes and the orchestration brings out the wonderment and magic of Christmas – a true celebration of Christmas!

What do you love about Christmas and what is your favourite Christmas tradition?

Rachel: [I love] the feeling of peace, joy and gratitude that you feel everywhere. My favourite Christmas tradition was finding the tree.

Cara: I love that Christmas brings families together; it’s always such a happy time of year no matter what. As for Christmas traditions,  my favourite would definitely be Christmas light hunting. It’s so much fun to be driving along and then all of a sudden see a beautiful house just covered in colourful lights. It’s so fun and exciting. My other favourite tradition would be the Christmas food! That’s the best part of the day.

Sally: My mother used to make this delicious dessert called Rote Grütze – a dish brimming with Summer berries, served with custard!! Christmas would feel incomplete to me without that delicious dish!

It’s not too late to purchase your tickets to the CSO’s Christmas Concert with tickets starting at $20 for students available both through Ticketek and at the door.

The essentials

What: A CSO Christmas

When: 2.00pm or 7.30pm, Saturday 6 December 2014

Where: Llewellyn Hall, ANU

How much: From $20 for students and ranging from $51 to $80 per person.

Tickets: Book individual tickets through Ticketek either online or phone 1300 795 012, or just buy them at the door.


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