The Durham University Chamber Choir’s first performance of this term was eagerly anticipated, and the Church of St Margaret was well filled for this evening’s performance, with audience members still arriving as the ensemble lined up ready to process in. The programme for this concert included a wide range of works, and encompassed a broad range of very topical themes to round off the end of 2016.

Opening the concert with Brian Kay’s arrangement of the traditional carol Gaudete, the choir showed excellent dynamic control and, although there could be more energy and diction in the quiet verses, there was great expressiveness. The lower voices were particularly responsive to George Cook’s very sensitive direction, which always kept the material fresh when the chorus repeated. 

Praeter Rerum Seriem by Josquin Des Prez followed, alongside Johnathan Lane’s There is no rose. Both showed perfect communication and ensemble skills, with a brilliant transition into triple time in des prez’s work. There was also great energy in the male voice section in Lane’s work, and this was contrasted with the sections where the bass dropped out to leave a wonderfully clear canopy of upper voices.

Following this was the first of the choir’s new consort groups, performing The Lady Oriana by John Wilbye. This new venture showed the singers working more closely to achieve a polished sound with less voices, and this madrigal setting showed the vocalists communicating and very visually involved in the music-making. A very intense interpretation of The Deer’s Cry by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt followed, and those very rhythmic block chords heard in the opening maintaining the intensity throughout, with very clear text.

Warlock’s I Saw a Fair Maiden followed, this, and despite having repeated verses, the piece was not boring and repetitive. Warlock’s shifting modalities supported a very full-sounding soprano melody. Consort Group Two followed this with Morley’ madrigal Hard by a Crystal Fountain. Again, there was great accuracy in this consort group, but there was no loss of character, with the captivating ‘chirping’ lyric very entertainingly expressed.

The first half was rounded off with Eric Whittacre’s Sleep and Howells’ A Spotless Rose. The lower voices break through the sustained upper voice chords in the central climactic passage, and again praise should go to the director for crafting this piece so convincingly. A Spotless Rose, demonstrated the choir’s skill in a supporting role, with Ethan Darby’s solo verse very bright in tone and projecting well across the space. Despite a slightly uneven tempo at the beginning of this piece, the chorus are very accurate, and their supportive role takes none of the clarity of text away.

After the interval, highlights of the second half included Tchaikovsky’s The Crown of Roses and Tavener’s tonally uncertain setting of Away in a Manger. The continuous narration through Tchaikovsky’s work was very well unified and the parts were well balanced. Tavener’s work also demanded a great emphasis on the words which were well delivered.

The final Consort Group followed with Long Live Fair Oriana by Gibbons. Despite some pitching issues initially, the overall ensemble sound was very pleasing with some of the most accurate and intricate material so far. Following these, The Three Kings by Peter Cornelius showed more of the choir’s strength in a supporting role, and the beautifully blended and very inward-looking chorus parts supported an elegant and not-too-overblown interpretation by soloist Matthew Hillborn.

The Finale was a recent arrangement by Danny Purtell of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, and this traditional tune featured atmospheric solo verses from tenor Matthew Jackson and Soprano Eleanor Hunt. The lower parts provided a very entertaining and illustrative backdrop quite reminiscent of winter wind, and the great strength of this piece was the expressive success of this image-painting. The audience visibly enjoyed the swung, gospel-style section and it was a real treat to end an evening of music representing all aspects of the advent season.

There was very clear enjoyment by the end of the evening, which was a very great success. Looking forward, the choir will be joining DUOS and the Northern Lights for a festive collaboration in Durham Town Hall on 13th December, alongside a host of other exciting projects in the new year!

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