This evening saw the Durham University Chamber Choir (directed by Theo Golden) present their first concert of the year, entitled: ‘A Boy Was Born’ – an array of music celebrating both, the Advent period and that of the birth of Christ, in St Godric’s Church.
The programme was carefully crafted, with the first half acting as a ‘mock’ Advent carol service, utilising the seven ‘O Antiphons’, commissioned by Merton College, Oxford in 2012; and which realised a magical array of contrasting movements, written by many of the great contemporary composers, including: Skempton, Taverner, and Eriks Esenvalds. Interspersed amongst these, were a stunning array of Advent anthems and carols, ranging from: Britten, to Warlock.
The concert started with the choir singing ‘O Sapientia’ by Howard Skempton at the rear of the church, allowing the sound to reverberate nicely around the audience; and it was at this point one could hear how well the choir blended together, creating a warm and inviting sound. The second work, ‘Hymn to the Virgin’, by Britten displayed the choir’s true cohesive nature; where we heard, for the first time the astounding power and tone the choir commands. Generally, the first half displayed many aspects of the choir’s talent, from finely tuned chords, to the lushness of sound that was produced throughout. At times, however, there were issues with balance, especially between the sopranos, which were often slightly overpowering of the overall sound sphere of the choir.
The variation of styles and the number of works allowed for a great number of very elegantly sang solo lines, most notably from Stephanie Devlin and Alex Akhurst in ‘The Darkness is no Darkness’, by Bingham; by Rossana Wicks in ‘Adam Lay Ybounden’ by Warlock; and by Joy Sutcliffe in ‘O Emmanuel’ by Eriks Esenvalds. One immediately noticed the exemplary musicianship exhibited by the soloists, providing a flowing line with pure tone, and which blended well with the choir’s accompaniment figures. Moreover, the decision to place soloists towards the middle of the church, allowed for the special sound created from spatial displacement, but also created a rather unbalanced sound, between soloist and choir, depending where one was sitting amongst the audience. The works of the first half, however, were generally extremely well handled. With the clear direction of dynamics, phrasing, and tempi, given clearly by Theo Golden; carefully enacting exactly how he wished each phrase to be sung and crafting the choir into a cohesive collective; and the overall sound showed these respectively. With such challenging repertoire, one may expect intonation issues, especially in the very animated sections of particular works, and indeed in the more reflective chordal sections; but generally, the intonation was exemplary.
The works of the first half, however, were generally extremely well handled. With the clear direction of dynamics, phrasing, and tempi, given clearly by Theo Golden; carefully enacting exactly how he wished each phrase to be sung and crafting the choir into a cohesive collective; and the overall sound showed these respectively.
The second-half of the concert saw the choir perform Benjamin Britten’s ‘A Boy Was Born’ – and it was delighting to hear the choir’s interpretation of the six variations on a theme. It was also great to hear the choir grasp each of the variations with ease, able to instantly change the mood and emotion of their sound to suit the text and musical setting. The first variation saw Abi Ingram take on another solo, which was once again very musically sang, in keeping with the desired sound of both text and mood of the variation. It was disappointing at times, however, that the rest of the choir somewhat overpowered this very magical solo line and resulted in the text being lost on a number of occasions. The third variation portrayed a truly wonderful interpretation of the work, with a reduced group of eight singers, creating a rather magical texture, with outstanding intonation, phrasing and wonderful balance – able to explore the range of dynamics associated with a smaller ensemble. The next variation was an exemplary example of how cohesive the choir is together; as the fast, rhythmical material was extremely tight, and jumped between sections with ease, creating an interesting contrast in sound between the individual sections and the collective sound. One of the highlights of this work, for me, was the magical nature, and serene sound quality exhibited in Variation five (‘In the Bleak Mid-Winter), which was sung solely by the sopranos and altos of the choir; and whose musicality shone through clearly, with the aspects such as phrasing, dynamics and intonation on fine form. Here also, the clarity of text was far more audible.
The concert ended with a work by John Rutter: ‘Hymn to the Creator of Light’ and allowed for the choir’s true potential to shine through, in terms of tone, and intensity of sound. As we approached the end of the concert, it was perhaps not surprising that the intonation started to slightly waiver at this point, but the nature of the work meant it was impartial to the overall delivery, which was fantastic in all other regards. The emotion of the work was clearly put across by the singers, and the direction and clarity of command by Golden, was very inspiring.
Overall, a truly wonderful performance by the Chamber Choir of some very challenging works, but also some of the most magical and reflective works for Advent and into Christmas period. It was a delight to hear such a great number of very polished solo appearances by some of the finest singers in Durham; and the ability of every member of the choir to work together to create such a gloriously rich, but carefully controlled sound. Special mention must be given to their director, Theo Golden, and Abi Ingram for their fantastic work in getting the choir to such a high standard over the past weeks.
The Chamber Choir’s next appearance will on: Monday 10th December, be sure to catch them in Elvet Methodist Church, alongside DUOS Symphony, and Northern Lights.
It was a delight to hear such a great number of very polished solo appearances by some of the finest singers in Durham; and the ability of every member of the choir to work together to create such a gloriously rich, but carefully controlled sound.