Considered the hottest ticket this season, the long sold-out joint concert between Durham University Chamber Choir and Durham University Orchestra Society was expected to impress. When the audience was welcomed into the warmly lit Great Hall, complete with towering Christmas tree, and the orchestra’s first notes rang forth, it was immediately clear that the night would not only meet expectation but surpass it.
To begin, Joseph Schultz led the orchestra in Prokofiev’s ‘Troika’, setting a precedent of liveliness and grace for the music to come. Despite some lack of clarity in quicker passages, the performance was engaging and mature, featuring special moments from Alex Ashton on bass drum and Ellie Knott on piccolo.
After Thomas Brooke introduced the Chamber Choir in a spritely version of ‘Gaudete’, choir and orchestra joined forces in Jonathan Whittaker’s inspired arrangement of ‘Carol of the Bells’ and ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’. The atmospheric introduction was managed with delicate balance between voices and orchestra, before building into a powerful expression of ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ at which you couldn’t help but smile (unless perhaps you were the tuba player, who looked thoroughly uninterested throughout).
With well-planned programming, the Chamber Choir took on the next section of the concert alone in soaring arrangements of classic carols. Brooke demonstrated great skill in allowing all soloists to showcase their talent without detracting from the choir’s performance as a unit.
When Lewis Wilkinson actually took to stage to conduct (after a mistimed entry one song too early), he was typically entertaining in both speech and performance, even sharing a trombone joke. Although he clearly wanted more energy from the brass, he handled repeated tempo changes with ease and achieved the big finish which ‘Christmas Festival’ deserved.
Just before the interval, Fiona Brindle was beautifully featured in the Choir’s rendition of ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ and Emer Acton invoked a beautiful dream world with her version of ‘Walking in the Air’. This piece also showcased the special relationship between Wilkinson and pianist Jonny Allsopp, as they danced lightly through a perfectly-coordinated accompaniment to Emer.
To reopen the second half, Schultz and the orchestra played Anderson’s ‘Sleigh Ride’, inviting the audience to accompany them on what was indeed a splendid musical journey. After modern classics performed by Hannah Azuonye, Will Emery and Izzy Chinn, the Chamber Choir again treated the audience to a change in tone and style. ‘Jingle Bells’ was performed with incredible control and ‘Silent Night’ visibly drew listeners in, tugging people forward in appreciation of the choir’s hushed but melodic lines.
In a last energetic transition, showman Lewis Wilkinson entered as Father Christmas and welcomed James MacTavish to the stage to hit high notes none of the audience believed possible in Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’. Perhaps the evening’s most stunning performance, the piece satisfyingly invoked the final scenes from Love Actually.
Just when it seemed the surprises were over, Sir Thomas Allen, Chancellor of Durham University, burst into the ensemble’s entertaining performance of ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’, standing up from the audience to add a booming ‘five gold rings’ with the passing of every verse.
However, the concert was not only about careless Christmas joys and, before the night’s final carols, Darren from Sanctuary 21 gave a poignant explanation of the work done by Durham Actually’s chosen beneficiary. Darren’s juxtaposition of the performers’ warm rendition of ‘Silent Night’ with the much harsher reality enacted daily across Durham was particularly moving. He concluded with grateful thanks not only to the night’s performers and their generous donation of time and talent, but to all the volunteers from Castle Community Action who assist daily in the Sanctuary 21 café and who run a weekly community meal for the homeless and vulnerable.
The concert’s variety, maturity and simple ability to please made it undoubtedly the best of Durham’s Christmas season. Transitions were managed with ease, the interval offered a tasteful pause to nibble Christmas treats, and a general holiday spirit pervaded. To quote Sir Thomas Allen, ‘That was a great concert, it really was.’