With Christmas fast approaching and the city fit to bursting with festive activities, Durham University Chamber Choir’s Michaelmas concert, ‘There is no Rose’ is an unmissable event to crown the end of term.

The concert presents a broad tour of different compositional periods, with a programme including works both secular and sacred, and from composers ranging from Whitacre to Pearsall. The Choir will also offer a tour de force of every expressed aspect of the Christmas season – from the eager expectation of Brian Kay’s arrangement of the traditional carol ‘Gaudete’, to the poignant guilt of Tchaikovsky’s reference to the Easter story in ‘The Crown of Roses’.

We spoke to this year’s Director, George Cook, about his thoughts on the choir this year, and about his plans both for this concert and for next term:

There is a mixture of secular and religious music in this concert programme. What was the overarching idea when preparing this repertoire?

The overarching idea when preparing this repertoire was to appeal to as wide an audience as possible by exploring different choral conceptions of Christmas, some more well known than others. I believe we have included some really exciting repertoire that is not usually sung to create a real mix in the programme, such as Tavener’s Away in a Manger and Pärt’s The Deer’s Cry. But these pieces just show the versatility and high standard of the choir this year.

We hear there was an exceptional crop of talent this year. How has the ensemble settled since the beginning of term, and did this affect your plans for the coming year?

There definitely was an exceptionally high standard in this year’s auditions, but that’s something that as the conductor I can’t complain about! Though in the end, we all more or less came to the same conclusions so we were confident in our decisions. I believe the choir is probably the best I have heard it in my three years here, and I am not just saying that. The first rehearsal was incredible because everyone blended instantly, and since then each individual has worked so hard to maintain the high standard that the chamber choir has consistently produced over the past few years. We’re so lucky to have such a musical and blended choir this year. I have not had to change any of my repertoire ideas; if anything the way the choir has worked has only encouraged me to tackle the more difficult repertoire I had in mind for second and third term!

What has been your favourite part of directing the Chamber Choir this term?

A tricky question! I would have to say the whole rehearsal process has been so gratifying and the Choir has been such a joy to work with. It only excites me further that we still have another two terms and a tour left! I have left every rehearsal feeling more and more excited for the concert, to show off what we have been working on. Another part has been creating and working with consort groups. This is something I set up in the choir this year whereby each group consists of 8 singers, each singing one per part. This term the consort groups are singing madrigals from Gibbons’ The Triumphs of Oriana, a set from the early days of secular music in the 1600’s; singing one per part allows the singers to engage more with each other and be more musically daring. An integral part of singing in a chamber choir is being able to listen and blend, and the consort groups have successfully managed to transfer this across from their consorts to the full choir. By incorporating the consort groups for the first time this offers the students a new opportunity to engage in a new group dynamic and also adds a competitive element to which group is the best!

If you had to choose a favourite item/s from this year’s programme, what would it be and why?

I would have to pick four of my favourites: Praeter Rerum Seriem (Josquin des Prez), because of its beautifully complex polyphony combined with a text about the mystery of the virgin birth. There is No Rose (Jonathan Lane) is another of my favourites because of its unusual harmonies that Lane uses to bring out the text which makes you feel warm and Christmassy! By writing verses for SSAAA followed by TTBB he creates a rich textural contrast. The Deer’s Cry (Arvo Pärt) is filled with atmospheric chord clusters with chilling silences in between, whilst the sopranos soar over with a beautifully straight line to build towards a thrilling climax at the end of the piece. My other favourite is Set Me As A Seal Upon Thine Heart (William Walton); the words from the Song of Solomon paint a vivid picture and Walton delicately sets the music so appropriately that it should set the scene beautifully for the beginning of the second half.

What are you most looking forward to in the New Year as an ensemble?

There are so many things to look forward to next term! We have a masterclass with the King Singers, we’re singing the Verdi Requiem in the cathedral as part of a collaborative project, and of course have our own second term concert in the Chapter House of Durham Cathedral. We will be singing the Lobo Lamentations and Brahms motets, which I am particularly excited about because the Chapter House has one of the most beautiful acoustics I have ever sung in which is well matched to the repertoire we’re doing. Save the date (25th February) – it will be an evening not to miss!

You can find out more about the Durham University Chamber Choir on their website at www.duchamberchoir.org or by following them on facebook. Tickets for their Christmas Concert on Friday 9th December are on sale from www.musicdurham.org/events/norose – book now to avoid disappointment!