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Singing seasonal songs

Five hundred young musicians and singers crowded on to the stage at Birmingham Town Hall for the city's annual Winter Celebration concert, featuring three of the city's 19 music ensembles, and a vast scratch choir from seven schools.

Choral singing in Birmingham schools has received a boost in recent years thanks to a generously sponsored vocal project. The results of this work could be clearly seen even though this choir was, on its conductor Peter Ranger's own admission, barely rehearsed. However, he need not have apologised for the fresh, bright sound these youngsters made in carols such as "Torches" and the attractive Zulu carol "Siyahanta".

The choir joined the Concert Orchestra for the opening "Sleighbell Serenade" by Philip Lane, a frothy piece yet with some tricky changes of pace and mood. In a programme in which the best items were those that did not over indulge in the Christmas spirit, the orchestra's Overture to Die Fledermaus was a lively and vigorous antidote to Christmas lollipops.

It was good to see more programme space for the Schools' Steel Band and the Brass Ensemble this year. The steelband's "Breathe Again" showed an ever increasing maturity considering that the players have only been together for one year. They have that rare quality among some pan players - the ability to play quietly. Having a weakness for Renaissance brass, I was particularly impressed with the Brass Ensemble's Terpsichorean Suite, which contrasted with a slinky version of Mel Torma's "Christmas Song".

The highlight of the evening, as often happens, came not from a polished ensemble but from a primary classroom. Clifton Junior School's Diwali piece, A Festival of Light, was multicultural music at its very best, far from the tokenism that can creep in when schools attempt to tackle religious festivals without a proper understanding of their significance. The entertainment began with some formidable tabla playing, followed by a graceful, controlled dance sequence telling the Diwali story. Best of all was the Stick dance, authentically choreographed and performed with grace and colour. This group deserves to be seen at a Schools Prom.

Birmingham Music Service has much to be proud of in the quality of its music provision to schools. Whether a schools' event needs a glossy presenter such as Jenny Herbert to remind the audience constantly of the debt the service owes its sponsors is questionable.

There was no sign of the abolition of Christmas as Southwark schools celebrated with an exciting variety of festive music performed in the magical setting of the cathedral just south of the Thames. The programme included several specially written cantatas and carols, a flute ensemble, a nativity play and a Schubert song.

Joseph Lancaster Primary School sang the Cantata Animata, a jazzy, almost tongue-in-cheek look at the nativity. By contrast the choir of St Jude's Primary offered "A Cry in the Night", including some fairly complex part-singing, and the visually attractive "Christmas Candle". Dulwich College Flute Choir provided an instrumental interlude with Mendelssohn's Scherzo from A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Flight of the Bumble Bee.

It was good to see able secondary students such as those from Kingsdale school being given a chance to display their talent. However, it was a pity that no programme credits were given to the vocal duo who gave us a delightfully unaffected rendering of Lloyd Webber's Pie Jesu, or to the clarinettist and singer who tackled Schubert's "Shepherd on the Rock" with such maturity. After the interval there was more quality singing from the choir and soloists of the Cathedral Primary School in selections from "Only a Baby'.

Pupils from Archbishop Michael Ramsay School staged their version of the coming of the Wise Men and the miracle of the crippled boy Amahl. Here there was no music but the clever idea of using a non-speaking pupil as a door was a humorous touch. The same school delivered a new musical version of a Christmas poem by John Betjeman.

Pupils from St James Primary played bells, glockenspiels and recorders in "Come on Ring Those Bells". I particularly enjoyed the original sound of the St Saviour's and St Olave's Gospel Choir in "The More I Get to Know You", proving that worship doesn't always have to be serious.

The Reverend Canon Roger Royle was a sprightly comp re in a joyous evening, which, in spite of a few rough edges, was a credit to music teaching in the inner city. Proceeds went to WelCare, a charity working for deprived families in Southwark.

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