‘Voicing the Spirit’, Durham University Choral Society first concert of the year, promised an evening of exciting and spirited music. With a move away from their more traditional choral repertoire, I was eager to hear how choral society, led by conductor Clare Lawrence-Wills, would tackle the challenge of fusing their own typical style to the jazz and world influenced music found in the two works featured in the concert.

The concert opened with ‘Zimbe! Come Sing the Songs of Africa’, a modern composition by choral composer and arranger Alexander L’Estrange, containing 12 songs African melodies, composed for a jazz quintet, children’s choir and SATB choir.

The triumphant opening of ‘Nijooni! Zimbe!’set the bar high for the concert; with the choir performing effortlessly the rich harmonies, while the percussion and drum parts (played Ben Brunell and Will Elias) really shone through the texture with their bursting parts. A wonderfully smooth saxophone solo, executed to perfection by Seb Heley, led us seamlessly into the next song, ‘Singabahambayo’, which again the choir sang in full clear harmonies, providing a great contrast to the free solo sax passages. The energy of this song was really great, driven by Clare’s enthusiastic and strong conducting. ‘Sansa Kroma’, the third song, started off a little hesitantly, with a decrease in dynamic and change in style, but gained in confidence allowing the later complex parts section to be pulled off. The small chamber group of sopranos who featured in this section and the next songs are to be commended for their clear intonation and articulation. The song ended was Isaac Conroy’s lyrical and stunning jazz piano, supported by the rest of the Jazz quintet. ‘Thula Mama, Thula’ illustrated again the great blend of voices the choral society could achieve, with all parts well balanced and great use of the small soprano group to replace the children’s choir. This blend was continued into the sixth song, with the basses shining through the texture, giving us a wide depth during the unaccompanied opening. Although the smooth harmonies were great, the movement and entrances were not always together, an inevitable problem with slow pieces. ‘Wai Bamba!’ had great groove, led with skill by bass guitar player, Ryan Bunce, and the male voices of the choir. ‘Hambe Lulu’ had an overall great build of dynamics, with reserved humming at the beginning over the Jazz band, joined later by the sopranos and the growing chorus. Although this was a lovely section, the balance of sound between the jazz band and choir was uneven, causing the humming to get lost in the acoustic of the church and under the amplified instruments. This song then led into ‘Vamudara/Nijooni! Zimbe!’ another uplifting chorus, this time with the wonderful Tenors projecting their melodic line well. The opening was repeated, and again the choir were diligent in watching the conductor, allowing for Clare’s masterful and clear beat to bring the chorus to a clean and joyous ending, with the percussion and drums taking over, confirming their skill with a samba-style section. ‘Aleluya/Thuma mina’ was a reminder of what Choral Society do best, with a gentle, more traditional style of chorus singing and harmonies for a sombre funeral song. Yet thrown in and pulled off where the vocal sounds and slides of traditional African singing, which were achieved successfully both in the chorus and in humming part under the melodic solo soprano section. The end saxophone solo for this song was particularly beautiful, Elvet Methodist Church’s acoustic allowed the vibrato to sing through the choir and church. Next we had ‘We Shall Not Give Up the Fight’, ‘Siyahamba’ and ‘Freedom is Coming/Hamba Vangali’ leading on from each other in a uplifting conclusion, celebrating the African tradition. Starting off a steady tempo led by the great bassline, the catchy chorus and joyful jazz band was hard to not tap your foot along and join in with the partying, yet it would have been nice to see a few more of the performers enjoying the celebration and taking part in the party cheering and clapping. The entire work came to end with another triumphant repetition of the opening ‘Njooni! Zimbe!’ leaving the audience with a huge smile and anticipation for the next half.

The second half was a performance of Will Todd’s ‘Mass in Blue’, featuring soprano soloist Hannah Cox and the Jazz band again. It had much of the same style as the previous work, ‘Zimbe!’ but this time with an obvious religious context, with the words following the traditional text of six sections.

The Kyrie started off with a great Jazz band section, with Isaac on solo piano setting the tone perfectly for the mass. When the choir joined in, the harmonies were predictably blues-influenced, and at times a little unclear, but overall a great sound. When Cox came in she stunned us with her lovely, clear high notes mixed in with the Jazz style of singing, swooping over the solid, if not slightly overpowering, chorus. The Gloria was overall handled well, with the tricky rhythms being controlled with skill and the slightly tentative ending enjoying the complex harmonies. Cox’s wonderful voice was out in full view in the Credo, with a saucy solo making full use of the blues scale and great melodic interpretation and in perfect balance with the choir. Clare handled the tempo changes masterfully, leading the slow middle section into an energetic ending with Cox executing a stupendous solo line full or powerful and marvellous high notes and movement. The Altos shone in the subdued Sanctus, being joined by a truly beautiful saxophone solo. The harmonies and dynamics were especially good in this section, with masterful swells. The Benedictus successful changed in style, with quiet and percussive lines building up gradually to an anticipated climax, after travelling through several keys with the help of the Jazz band and Cox. The last section, the Agnus Dei, was magnificent with Cox and the Chorus bringing the work to a spectacular close.

Overall, this was a spectacular evening, really setting the standard high for Choral Society’s future concerts this year. It was a real celebration of jazz and chorus singing, with the Jazz band and solo soprano adding a wonderful authentic jazz sound and atmosphere. I left with a massive smile on my face and am looking to their next concert in the cathedral on the 11th March.