This weekend was a truly monumental weekend for Music Durham as, following the mesmerising Swing, Strings, and Sir Tom concert in the Gala theatre on Friday evening, on Saturday the Durham University Choral Society and Palatinate Orchestra took to the stage in the breath-taking Durham Cathedral for Spirit of Peace. This concert was to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of Durham University Choral Society, one of the oldest and largest music societies in Durham.
The choir and the orchestra have recently joined together under the expert baton of Adam Laughton who is full time conductor of the orchestra, whilst the full time director of the choir is on maternity leave. Both groups have truly enjoyed this collaboration and the opportunities it has opened up to new and exciting repertoire – and this clearly shone through the entire performance!
The concert opened with Parry’s Blest Pair of Sirens, first performed 130 years ago and perhaps made most famous at the Royal Wedding in 2011. The proud opening immediately illustrates Parry at his finest, and the orchestra execute this with style and finesse. The winds were confident, the strings soared above into the heights of the space, and the audience could see the clear passion that Laughton has for the music and these ensembles. The full range of the orchestras dynamics and timbres were explored within the first few bars, allowing for a captivating beginning to the concert – bravo! At times the middle of the texture was lost due to the forceful acoustic but this did not detract from an excellent sound.
Parry wrote this work after disappointment that his operatic attempts had been unsuccessful, but as soon as the choir join the orchestra you can truly hear the drama and passion he was able to fill his music with. From their first note the choir were impressively tidy, with every note clearly together and excellent diction. Every one of the eight chorus parts was given enough attention and not neglected, which is an impressive achievement in this venue, however at times the balance between the chorus and orchestra was off and we began to lose the choir. This can be forgiven however, as no sooner were they lost than they were catapulted back with energy and vigour – a truly exciting performance! It would have been easy for the music to run away with itself and become too agitated and aggressive, but these fine performers remained always controlled. Star performers: the alto section!
Following the Parry came the main feature of the evening: Karl Jenkins’s The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace. Perfectly coupled with the previous work, this was the first performance of this mass in Durham Cathedral and proved an exceptional way to mark the first DUCS Cathedral Concert. The work is an anti-war piece combining a Roman Catholic Mass with other sources including fifteenth century folk song (L’Homme arme) and the Islamic Call to Prayer. It is written for SATB Chorus, Soprano Soloist, and Orchestra. The text is not entirely based on the mass but also utilizes the beautiful poetry of Kipling, Tennyson, and Toge.
The work began with a haunting representation of feet marching overlaid by shrill piccolo leaving the audience in not doubt of the message of this work. The choir entry takes a little while to settle but leads into a delicately beautiful rendition of L’homme arme, particular mention must go to the gentlemen of the choir who executed the harmonies with confidence, coupled with the lower winds. Here, as later in the work, trumpets could have perhaps taken more care to ensure they were together – a difficult challenge for the best of players in such an enveloping acoustic as Durham Cathedral.
Following this we hear the Call to Prayers. Sung traditionally in Arabic, this declares ‘Allah is the greatest; I bear witness that there is no other god but Allah; I bear witness that Muhammed is the messenger of Allah’. A truly moving addition, not usually heard in this setting but not at all out of place, reminding the audience of the need for peace with all around us. This is followed by the Kyrie that usually opens the mass. This opens with a solemn orchestral introduction which DUPO grasp well and with confidence (particularly the cello section) before the soprano soloist takes over with the lilting waltz theme: an excellent contribution from soprano soloist! This movement also allowed each member of the chorus to show off their strengths, moving effortlessly from the lilting Lord Have Mercy to the more traditional Christe eleison in the style of Renaissance counterpoint. DUCS have no trouble negotiating these contrasting styles and taking the audience on a true musical journey.
Just as the audience settles into Save Me from Bloody Men, the expert percussion interrupt with a fateful drum beat that removes any calm and again creates tension. This continues into the Sanctus which is traditionally one of the most joyous moments of the Mass but here has more of a militaristic feeling. At times the ensemble suffers the same issues of balance and timing but this does not detract from the expression. We move away from the Mass again for the Hymn before Action and it is clear by now that the people – and the audience due to the calibre of performance – are preparing themselves for war and the ultimate sacrifice. The brass section truly comes into their own during Charge! with an energetic performance, perfectly mirroring the will of the conductor. This is followed by an eerie silence, perhaps the audience are going to get a rest from the tumultuous emotions thus far? There is no chance of that as the Last Post echoes around the space. Some may consider the tone of the trumpet less appropriate here than the more traditional cornet or bugle but the style is not lost.
Angry Flames takes us again away from the traditional Mass, reflecting on Hiroshima, introduced by tolling of bells and again expertly led by all soloists. Torches takes us again beyond Christianity with this setting of the Hindu Mahabharata remembering animals caught up in conflict. The choir prove their strongest in the Agnus Dei offering a glimpse of the hope of peace with delicate and soul filled performance. One of the clear highlights of the evening. The final triptych begins with Now the Guns have Stopped wherein the audience are invited to mourn lost loved ones and consider solitude. The ensemble carefully lead the audience through these emotions with virtuosic playing and ensuring each note has the space it needs to resonate. Benedictus again features soloist, this time serenely on the cello. The skill of the performer and effortless passing of the melody to the choir is breath taking and all involved should be proud. The Mass end with Better is Peace in which music from the beginning returns, adjusted slightly. Again the ensemble demonstrate their skill in navigating a short fugue before an orchestral interlude in which Laughton draws from the players every detail and moment of magic. The most magical moment of the evening is perhaps the very ending when brass and percussion become suddenly silent and the choir are left to sing unaccompanied. This is a confident yet understated performance, and we look forward to hearing more from both of these groups in the near future.