What a concert of delights! A host of ensembles representing Music Durham performed a vibrant series of works fused by the theme of the supernatural, aptly presented in the magnificent venue of Durham Cathedral to a full house.

The Chamber Choir began the concert with magical rendition of ‘Stars’ by Ēriks Ešenvalds. The beautiful resonance and blend of this choir was astounding, with warmly accurate intonation and well-judged dynamics. Although the glistening accompaniment of the tuned wine glasses was occasionally overpowered, this became an effect in itself, emerging into focus from the hum of the acoustics. Their final piece was ‘Widley’s Wizard Wheezes’, composed by their conductor, Josh Ridley. The resonant bass, as in ‘Stars’, was fantastic, and the character of the medley of various wizardry themes was just right.

At times the intonation was perhaps a little uneasy and there could have occasionally been more dramatic crescendos. However the arrangement itself had excellent transitions between themes, performed smoothly by Ridley and the singers. Although I felt at times the overall tone slightly lacked a touch of maturity, as a student ensemble the Chamber Choir gave an incredibly impressive performance.

Following this, Concert Band played Jacques Offenbach’s ‘Orpheus in the Underworld’. The intonation was very good and conductor Hugo Jennings was very enthusiastic. Sometimes his gestures seemed a bit too eager for the dynamic being created, however the band handled the sudden changes fantastically. The brass at times could have exhibited more articulation and overall the ends of sections I felt could have been sustained a little longer. 

The tempi were well chosen by Jennings despite the occasional moment where the band became a little out of sync. The phrasing also could have had smoother arcs and softer exits. The various solos I felt could have been a bit more playful in the comic opera bouffe style, but nevertheless were musical and freely expressive. The horn playing was notably warm and satisfying. The overall energy for this performance, especially of the ‘Can-Can’ was infectious. 

Next were the Choral Society, with the radiant ‘O Magnum Mysterium’ by Morten Lauridsen. The passion was clear to see in this strikingly beautiful piece. The intonation and balance were very good, vital in Lauridsen’s fused harmonic writing. Occasionally, more support was needed on the higher soprano notes, particularly towards the end of a phrase so as not to die off too soon. There cannot be too much legato in this music, and greater resonance can be achieved with more relaxed jaws. Choral Society’s next piece was with the Palatinate Orchestra, performing excerpts from Carl Orf’s timeless ‘Carmina Burana’. The dynamics were generally good, although I felt a greater crescendo towards the end was needed, perhaps with a more explosive timpani flourish and faster tempo. More emphasis was needed on the first beat of the bar with the timpani and brass to solidify the tempo, which would have helped to keep the orchestra and choir in sync. In ‘O Fortuna’, the initiating slow declamatory statement, although sung with great verve, needed more consonant sounds in the choir, which would have aided matching the orchestra’s volume. The resonance, regardless of the dynamic, needed to be greater in the acoustic of the Cathedral. Although the consonants were clearly audible in the following section, the staccato phrases lacked direction and focus.

The second half of the concert began with a rather risqué performance by the New Art Music Ensemble. The highly engaged performers incorporated the tuba, violin, speech, whistling and singing in an improvised piece, ‘Wind Horse’, by Pauline Oliveros, to explore their inner selves and the outer world. The result was an eclectic mix of styles and sounds not normally heard by the public, making rather dramatic and mysterious listening. Although improvised, there were clear repetitions of motifs throughout the performance that fused the music and despite the atonality the intonation was very accurate. The clash between the classical architecture of the Cathedral and the avant-garde style of music was lessened by the clever direct reference to the Cathedral in the improvised speech. This was a significant leap from the music of the first half, it nevertheless was for me an intellectual and at times moving performance.

We then fast forward to the 21st century with Northern Lights. As is expected with the ensemble, their very sensitive dynamics, combined with enthusiastic choreography and well-judged vocal percussion were a given. The backing vocals to the soloists Oscar Lingard and Miranda Phillips were very effective and flexible. The duet was also well balanced, although Oscar should perhaps be wary of sounding restrained when tilting the head backwards.

To conclude the concert, the Orchestral Society performed three classic jazz pieces, each with a soloist. The first, ‘Dream’, by Ella Fitzgerald (arr. Nelson Riddle), was performed with a beautifully warm tone and Fitzgerald-esque style by Evelyn Hill. The dynamic variety in the orchestra was fantastic, although unfortunately at times overpowered Evelyn. The brass for me was a little too snappy and abrupt in the staccato syncopation, although intonation was sound. This was followed by ‘Street of Dreams’ by Chet Baker (arr. Len Mercer) performed on the trumpet by Alex Flanders.

His phrasing was wonderfully smooth with a pure sound, although I felt the dynamic could be more daring to match his excellent improvisations. The strings captivated the style perfectly; relaxed and free, yet absolutely together. As in the Fitzgerald, the ending could have held out a little longer to complete the magic. The final item was the iconic ‘Witchcraft’ by Frank Sinatra (arr. Nelson Riddle), sung by Rob Singleton. Rob evidently feels the charismatic Sinatra style, although could do with more legato. The rhythm of the orchestra, although perfectly together, I felt needed more vigour in the syncopation.

In conclusion, the evening celebrated the achievements of these individual ensembles this academic year and demonstrated promise for the future of high-quality music-making in Durham. Make sure not to miss the second Music Durham concert on 3rd June in Durham Castle, Earthbound. Tickets are available here: https://www.musicdurham.org/event/earthbound/