On Friday, the Cathedral’s striking, blue lighting set an effective and theatrical atmosphere for a stimulating performance in Durham Vocal Festival, now in its third year. The Life of St Cuthbert project has combined performance, outreach and professional musicianship in the form of a week-long musical “pilgrimage” from Bamburgh, through 4 primary schools in the North East, to Durham Cathedral. The spectacular end to this project, the world premiere of Solfa Carlile’s cantata “Life of St Cuthbert”, did not disappoint. The piece, commissioned by Cantata Dramatica and based on the script by Nick-Pitts-Tucker and Dr. Charlie Rozier, traversed the life of the Northumbrian Saint in a seven-scene work, which told the story through music and narration from Cuthbert’s meeting with Aidan up to his death. Breathing life into the piece was Durham University Chamber Choir, instrumentalists from the Sine Nomine Players and Music Durham, and conductor James Burton.

the spectacular end to this project, the world premiere of Solfa Carlile’s cantata “Life of St Cuthbert”, did not disappoint

Spoken narration throughout from Symeon (David Stancliffe), Aidan (Nathaniael Thomas-Atkin) and Bede (Cameron Ashplant) lead us on this musical journey alongside the Chamber Choir. Nathanael has already made a great impression on Durham’s music scene this year, having sung Finzi’s Dies Natalis with DUOS Chamber Orchestra in December. It was encouraging to see him take such a large singing and speaking role in this work, with a presence that radiated authority and skillfully captured our attention as an audience. Indeed it was encouraging to see so many Chamber Choir members taking on solo parts throughout, and a particular mention should be made of Seb Carpanini as Wilfrid and Natalie Houlston as Eabba.

Each scene of this work presented a key chapter in the life of St Cuthbert. The opening scene itself was particularly noteworthy, providing a captivating start which, together with some sensitive use of lighting and staging, set the tone well for the rest of the cantata. The opening narrative introduced the saint and told the tale of his calling by Aidan, and was soon underpinned by accompanying music which added an extra complimentary element to the work. The piano also served to introduce and affirm a recurring chordal motif, representing the apprehension felt at times by Cuthbert. High praise must go to students Laura Cooper, Maggie Briggs, Gabriel Francis-Dehqani and Finlay Gordon, who played alongside instrumentalists from the Sine Nomine Players. Their sensitive playing was truly stunning, with the string resonance of Laura and Gabriel especially shining through.

Durham University Chamber Choir made their first appearance on stage halfway through this first scene, filling the sparseness of the music with lush, largely reverberated harmony. The scene concluded with a stunning arrangement of Be Thou My Vision, which showcased the exceptional talent of Durham alumnus and ex-Chamber Choir Conductor Daniel Tate as Cuthbert, alongside Thomas-Atkin. The Chamber Choir truly shone in this moment with a delicate and tender approach as Cuthbert affirmed his intention to follow in Aidan’s footsteps.

a captivating start which, together with some sensitive use of lighting and staging, set the tone well

The theatrical elements to the work seemed to dissipate throughout as the scenes seemed to be more driven by the music. As the work progressed, more and more musical styles were introduced, including Medieval Plainchant and early music, while at other times subtle modal dissonances hinted at the tensions between traditional Latin liturgy and the emerging Celtic sensibility of Cuthbert. I was particularly fond of the short pieces reminiscent of folk song for harp and solo voice which were intermittently placed throughout the work, though the music certainly had something for everyone’s taste.

The final scene was my personal highlight of the evening. The chordal motif first heard in the opening scene was reprised in a particularly effective manner, incorporating all the musicians on stage. The work rounded off with a final solo passage for baritone Tate, which served as a bittersweet end to the piece as Cuthbert found his final resting place in Durham. The stillness which followed, with the dimming of the lights to a complete black out and a silence before rapturous applause, made the moment all the more poignant as the audience sat and digested the work.

The appropriateness of Durham Cathedral as the venue for the premiere of “Life of St Cuthbert” did not come without its acoustic challenges. The smaller chamber ensemble sometimes risked being swamped, and moments of narration became hard to distinguish, however, the pieces purely for choir were highly effective. My final thoughts on the work are that it was a commendable innovation to combine a cantata with more theatrical elements, despite the lack of set. It was clear that the Chamber Choir had been incredibly well prepared by their Conductor Theo Golden, who had handed over the baton for the night to renowned Conductor James Burton.

High praise must also be given to Production Director Jonny McCauseland, a first year student who took on this challenge of director with passion and clarity. His efforts are to thank for the lighting cues which reflected the mood of the scenes with such sensitivity and made so much more of this work. He turned this choral work into a staged production which carried the narrative and brought the story to life. Further commendations must also be given to Nick Pitts-Tucker and Charlie Rozier for their combined research and knowledge which made the retelling of the story of St Cuthbert so effective, and of course, to Solfa Carlile for her music.

Don’t miss out on the chance to see Chamber Choir again on Saturday 2nd March in the Cathedral Chapter House as they present ‘Footsteps on a Small Island’ a concert exploring works by composers of the 20th and 21st centuries hailing from all corners of the British Isles.

Production Director Jonny McCauseland, a first year student who took on this challenge of director with passion and clarity