A Song of Winter

Embracing tradition and the joys of the season are just two reasons why winter concerts and events endure

Winter is a season steeped in tradition. The cold weather gathers families indoors where they share food, festive movies and get competitive over friendly boardgames. Each family’s traditions can be unique and last for generations to come: whether it is the annual airing of a Morecambe & Wise Christmas Special, hanging the stockings over the fireplace, attending midnight mass or watching the annual Albert Square cliffhanger as another miserable season of EastEnders comes to a close, we love to indulge ourselves in our traditions. Outside the home, one much loved tradition is the winter concert. They are the first concerts planned at the start of each year and are always well attended by the public. But what is the secret to their enduring appeal? Conductor for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (rpo.co.uk), Nick Davies, knows a thing or two about winter concerts, having conducted them for over a decade now. He believes tradition is the key to their continuing appeal.

Nick Davies has spent over 25 years in music

“People love traditions and see winter as a time when families can get together – they want to be entertained, they want to have fun and winter has that extra element of excitement and tradition to it. It’s the atmosphere that really makes it.” As a conductor, Mr Davies is always on the lookout for ways to keep the winter concerts fresh and exciting, but it is this blending of the traditional with the modern that can be problematic.

“We are always on the look out for modern songs that we can put in. For example, Michael Bublé came out with an album of Christmas songs and we covered one of his,” explains Mr Davies.

Heard: Romeo and Juliet by Dire Straits

“We also have Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas Is You, which has a more of a pop feel to it. It’s about creating that variation for the orchestra instead of just playing the traditional classical repertoire we usually play.”

Part of the charm of any concert is the venue that hosts it – a concert held in the Royal Albert Hall will create an air of pomp and circumstance, grandeur, occasion and, from the intimate venue to the grand event – it is the ambience of the occasion that really adds the finishing touch, as Mr Davies explains:

“I have been conducting the RPO at Cadogan Hall, in Chelsea, for a decade now. The hall itself is such a wonderful place because it holds a good number of people but remains relaxed and intimate thanks to the seating balcony that runs around the hall on the upper level. This brings everyone closer to the performers and adds a personal touch to the occasion. When you’ve got the audience enjoying a good sing-song it creates an atmosphere that is both festive and relaxed, and it’s my job to make sure it feels that way.”

While the audiences may arrive enthusiastic and flushed with excitement for the concerts every year – how do the musicians feel about them? Is there any sense of fatigue by the end of the winter season?

“No, not at all, especially with a close-knit orchestra like the RPO who have spent the whole year travelling and working with each other,” says Mr Davies. It becomes something for us all to look forward to, enjoy and really let our hair down. I never get any feeling of ‘oh gosh it’s Christmas and bah humbug!’ It’s quite the opposite and we have a really great time.”

Interview: Sir Tony Robinson

Now, we all know that moment – usually near the beginning of December – but seemingly earlier each year – when the radio stations change their playlists to include festive favourites. From the moment you hear the distinctive drawl of Shane MacGowan and The Pogues you know that it is that time of year once again.

Are things any different in the world of the classical music conductor?

“I don’t think you can manage without songs like White Christmas and Jingle Bells. Those songs are absolute musts for a Christmas concert. Even if you don’t know the words, you still know the tune and can hum along,” says Mr Davies. “Also orchestral pieces like Sleigh Ride are popular. While I don’t think audiences would complain if they weren’t there, they are traditional pieces and they certainly enjoy it when they are included!”

Are there any traditions that Mr Davies likes to maintain at his concerts?

“One tradition that we have is to get someone from the audience to come up and sing with the orchestra,” says Mr Davies. “It’s a big thrill for them, as they can go home and sit down for Christmas dinner and say they sang a solo with the RPO! It always raises a lot of smiles.”

The embracing of tradition at this time of year is something that can bring comfort, warmth and a feeling of familiarity and, perhaps, this is the key to their enduring appeal. Where better to experience those things than in wonderful surroundings, listening to beautiful music and embracing the joys of the winter season. We will see you front-and-centre at the concerts!