Saturday 11th November held a very special evening in Elvet Methodist Church. Not only the first ever concert for the new group, but a premiere of a new piece The Glass Box, by Durham student, Tristan Latchford.

The evening began with Porpora’s Alto Giove from Polifemo, the 34th opera of Porpora, a composing rival of Handel. This opening gave a serene start to the concert with Alex Pullinger, countertenor soloist (New College, Oxford), bringing beautiful soaring tones which perfectly matched the orchestral ensemble. His impressive high range and well controlled ornamentation raised the standard of what was going to be a very exciting concert. Following the Porpora, the ensemble consisting of 12 strong played Holst’s Brook Green Suite, Elgar’s Elegy, Op. 58, and Walton’s Two Pieces from Henry V. The Holst brought the concert to life with an energetic start. Particular recognition goes to violist Laura Cooper for the possible unintentional solo throughout the concert but her consistently confident tone fit perfectly within the ensemble. The Elgar could have benefited with stronger bass support but the ensemble nonetheless beautifully captured the full sense of the title of this movement. Jennings’ passion and motivation invited more from the orchestra which proved successful. The Walton began with convincing entries from all sections with powerful and effective moments from the lead cellist Emma Farmer, well supported and balanced by the rest of the ensemble.

The Glass Box began with Latchford talking through the composer notes which were particularly helpful but certain crucial things were missed during the movement of chairs and setting up of the piece! High expectations were set for this piece with Tristan’s high success as a composer already having recently won the Nicholas Thorpe Prize for Composition in 2016 and receiving a prize at the renowned International Anton Dvorak Composition Competition in 2017, beating many professional composers much older than himself. Half song cycle, half operetta, The Glass Box, text by Paul Latchford, explores the effect of dementia on the relationship of its two main protagonists, ‘Our Lady’ sung by Maddy Wattles, and ‘Our Man’ sung by Leo Charlier. This work set for string ensemble, organ, soprano solo, baritone solo and chorus was incredibly moving and touching. The use of the organ, perfectly executed by MA student Ben Mackey, was very striking in the powerful opening, almost creating a similar sound world to that of an ominous film score, neatly tying in with Latchford’s next project. Wattles and Charlier produced a lovely musical duet with their natural choral singing tones matching and balancing well.

Charlier in particular had a natural stage presence connecting with the audience making his character and emotions more believable, a talent that never goes amiss. Movement 3 Fury’s descent, sticks out as an incredibly powerful movement and shame to have not been staged as at points felt that the potent text was underwhelmed with a calling for a dramatic representation. A consideration for future perhaps? ? Latchford cleverly used the well-blended chorus with effective acknowledgment of orchestral and vocal interaction heard in the jarring moment of ‘Wake up’ in movement 6. Maddy’s stunning  tone excelled in full glory in the last movement Ensuing freedom over the recitative element with the use of speech in the chorus. It was thoroughly enjoyable to hear Wattle in a different setting after being well known for her vivacious performances with Durham University leading Acapella group Northern Lights. I hope she continued to perform in a classical setting as there is much potential for success with such an impressive high range.

Jennings proved to have immense control over the whole ensemble and his simple but exceptionally clear direction was necessary for what is a very technically challenging piece. Although elements did feel a little under rehearsed and could have benefited from more confidence, without a doubt, this concert was wonderfully well programmed. My hat also goes off to all involved because there was a clear sense of comradery in the fact that many performing were there to support Tristan as a friend which was very moving when considering the work’s topic!

The performance was thoroughly enjoyable and I very much look forward to seeing what the future holds in store for Durham Contemporary Opera.