Beautifully titled ‘The Evening Watch’, the final concert in Durham University Chamber Choir’s calendar for this academic year took place in the most prestigious venue of Durham – the Cathedral. Building on from their previous triumphs earlier in the year, the concert was well-attended by students, families and members of the local community alike; the expectations were, as always, high due to the choir’s stellar reputation, but they certainly did not disappoint.
Opening with James MacMillan’s ‘Miserere’, the choir immediately re-established every quality that the audience of Durham have come to know them for; the piece was executed with consistent clarity and conviction, supported emphatically by a strong bass section. The blending was absolutely first-rate; combined with the stunning acoustics of the Cathedral, the audience swathed in a silky timelessness before the singers brought the piece to a close with a powerful surge of emotion that ultimately faded into exquisite tranquillity.
The next item in the programme unveiled the refreshing idea to have the 24-people choir split into three consort groups for three different settings of ‘When David Heard’ by Thomas Tomkins, Thomas Weelkes and Robert Ramsey, that were interspersed throughout the programme. It was lovely to experience the contrast in texture and to be able to hear the delicately interweaving voices in a more transparent context. Despite some minor slips in the intonation of the sopranos’ top Gs in Weelkes’s setting, and a slightly murky start to Ramsey’s piece, the three works were generally delivered masterfully, and provided some much-appreciated variety in the concert whilst perfectly showcasing how well the musicians gelled with each other. The full choir also presented two staple works in the rich anthology of English Renaissance choral music – Thomas Tallis’s ‘Salvator Mundi’ and John Taverner’s ‘Dum Transisset Sabbatum’ – that were both performed with remarkable attention to the phrasing, never once losing sight of the beautiful fluidity of the music.
A change in the programme brought an unexpected and rare treat to the audience, as Herbert Howells’s ‘Take him, earth, for cherishing’ was replaced by a contemporary work, ‘Of Flowers and Faithfulness’ by the 23-year-old Luke Mather, who was present in the audience. With the text taken from Cameron Henderson-Begg’s longer poem ‘A Hymn to the Kingdom’, the piece unravelled into bursts of some gorgeously French harmony that was perhaps too beautiful to hear settle so quickly. A heartfelt and translucent portrayal of the quiet melancholy in the text, built on a lilting texture that was simply inspired, this was a profound and special work executed by the choir with immense emotional sensitivity, and was certainly one of the highlights of the concert.
To bring the excellent first half of the concert to a close, the choir performed the eponymous piece, ‘The Evening Watch’, as well as ‘Sing me the men’, both from Gustav Holst’s ‘Two Motets’. The former opened with a dulcet tenor solo sung by Llewelyn Cross, and featured Meg Griffiths’s confident alto solo. Even though there was a slight issue with the balance as the basses were occasionally overshadowed by the brightness of the other sections, it was nevertheless an impressive performance; the choir handled the complex harmony very well, and generated power of tremendous magnitude towards the stunning end of the piece. The beginning of ‘Sing me the men’ simmered with vigour, while the more tender moments were treated with great control and thoughtful consideration that came across extremely well.
The second half of the concert started with Benjamin Britten’s delicate ‘Hymn to St Cecilia’, which featured some beautifully sung solos, most notably by Abigail Ingram and James Draper. The more fleeting passages in the work could have been approached with more attention to the enunciation, but the rendition was convincing overall. The next item, Michael Tippett’s ‘Five Negro Spirituals’, was a delight. Amongst the rotation of solos, Emer Acton gave a strikingly mesmerising performance as her gorgeous soprano voice soared through the entire Cathedral; on the other hand, bass singer Peter Dunn presented an impressively grounded, assured and emphatic interpretation.
‘The Blue Bird’ by Charles Villiers Stanford featured a breath-taking soprano solo by Hannah Cox which put her technical prowess on full display; the choir was masterful in their accompanying role, and the whole performance was enchanting. Paul Mealor’s ‘Locus Iste’ was luminous and moving under the animated and inviting direction of George Cook, who frequently strayed from his music stand to engage with the singers; Bethany Wright’s hypnotising voice in her solo brought the piece to a serene ending. The choir then split into two groups for a touching and authoritative rendition of ‘Bring us, O Lord God’, written for double choir by William Harris, before finally concluding the concert with the sparkling ‘Star of the County Down’, a traditional Irish ballad arranged by Ben Parry. It was a dazzling performance with overflowing character and some virtuosic singing from the soprano section, and it was certainly a crowd-pleaser that brought the splendid concert to a fitting end, with many members of the audience cheerfully humming the tune as they left the venue.
This brilliant concert stood testimony of the incredible finesse and shining musicianship possessed by each and every singer, and further consolidated the choir as one of Music Durham’s flagship ensembles. It seems that the group has only ever gone from strength to strength, and will continue doing so in the foreseeable future; it is indeed hugely exciting to see what newly appointed conductor Josh Ridley – a current member of the choir – will do with the plethora of talent on his hands next year.