I was struck by the excitement of the audience in the minutes preceding tonight’s concert. Two of the University’s largest a cappella groups were always going to draw in a healthy crowd, but it was clear that everyone was expecting a high-quality evening from the sell-out performance. Tonight’s concert was a part of the annual Durham Vocal Festival, which involves ten days of vocal music around Durham, finishing on the 2nd February. If the other concerts in the festival are anything like this evening’s, I would strongly encourage a look into what else is on.

 

Durham University’s award-winning Gospel Choir immediately set the standard for this evening’s concert with their medley of spirituals. The performers’ infectious enjoyment of the music was immediately evident, and each overlapping melody was perfectly together and confidently portrayed. Better is One Day, arranged by co-director George Bone, turned out to be the earworm of the evening, with stable harmonies and controlled backing to a moving and sincere solo from Abi Smith Buckle. For this set to have been brought to the next level, it would have been nice to have had all the choreography, be it clicking or clapping, starting unanimously as sometimes these effects trickled in, which somewhat detracted from the confident singing.

‘The performers’ infectious enjoyment of the music was immediately evident’

Unfortunately, we learnt that Gospel Choir’s accompanist was ill at the last minute; however, we were lucky that George Bone was able to accompany pieces, whilst Co-Director La’marisa Barclay conducted. My, Life, My Love, My All by Kirk Franklin had some lovely expansive phrases with dynamic contrasts being effectively handled by La’marisa. Yes, by Trey McLaughlin saw a fantastic connection with the audience, causing the entire Gala Theatre to clap along. George Bone conducted from the keyboard, which may have led to a couple of phrases not quite starting together. A flawless rap solo by Michael Heron in Blinded By Your Grace Pt.2 by Stormzy (arr. George Bone) earned avid applause. The trio of voices in Joyful Joyful went very well together and the musicality of these performers was lovely to see. Gospel Choir definitely left the best until last with O Happy Day, receiving whoops from the audience. Solos by Francesca Tugwell and Natalie Reid were incredibly impressive and finished the first half on a high!

Northern Lights started their programme with three songs from their ICCA repertoire, a warmup act for their competition on Saturday. It was also lovely to see that all of their songs had been arranged by society members Logan Williams and Will Triggs. Their first song, On My Mind, immediately showcased the group’s tight intonation and choreography. Maddy Wattles sang with utter conviction, though sometimes it was tricky to hear the lyrics over the rest of the ensemble. It was evident that the group were incredibly close. The communication between members was lovely to see on stage and in Father, Father, dynamics were perfectly balanced, with each member knowing when to bring out their vocal line. Harlem Nguyen’s solo was beautifully communicated, and I thought Lorna Reston’s choreography here was very effective. Don’t Let Me Down got off to a slightly rocky start in the soprano section, who sometimes overpowered Tasmin Martin-Young on the solo. This didn’t seem stop her from showcasing a lovely lower vocal register, however, and the faultless vocal percussion here from Jonny Hewitt led to this song being an audience favourite.

‘Northern Lights gave an entirely professional and sensitive performance’

The mash-up of Only One in The World started with a gentle solo from Will Drake and Kathryn McLaren, who had lovely onstage chemistry. The arrangement was masterfully done, with motifs in the soprano parts dipping in and out of each other. My personal highlight of the evening, however, had to be Gravity. Northern Lights gave an entirely professional and sensitive performance and the voices of Oliver Higgins and Naomi Cook were not only chill-inducing, but also fit the song perfectly. Attention brought a focus on the ladies who pulled the song off fantastically. I particularly enjoyed the beatboxing effects in this song and impressive diction from Georgia Vermeulen ensured that every word was heard.

New member Hastings Riley showed off his impressive vocal range in Get Home and this was coupled with tasteful choreography, though I felt that this arrangement was somewhat repetitive, with an ending that left something to be desired. Harlem Nguyen gave the standout performance of the evening with Should’ve Been Us, her upper register cutting through what was occasionally an imbalanced ensemble. This should not detract from the overall performance however, which was truly breath-taking. Clarity showed off Harlem Nguyen’s riff skills and gave a powerful ending to Northern Lights’ set.

Inviting Gospel Choir back on stage, Sunday Candy proved to be a lovely crossover of genres for both societies, which deserved the standing ovation that it received. Furthermore, with only a couple of instances of ensemble balance taking a moment to settle, this instalment of Durham Vocal Festival should be considered a great success for everyone who took part, especially considering last-minute changes of plan for Gospel Choir! A special congratulations goes to Dewi Erwan, Abbie Longmate and Maya Spence and their executive committees for putting together a fantastic concert.

Joy Sutcliffe