As an ensemble that has been active for only three years, the Northern Lights have made their Gala debut in fantastic style. Performing a diverse array of arrangements all by current or ex-members – from musical numbers to recent chart hits – the ensemble proved that even with a packed university timetable they were able to showcase their exceptional talents in a thoroughly well-prepared and professionally executed performance.

Northern Lights were thrilled to be featured in the Gala as part of the inaugural Durham Vocal Festival, a week long festival highlighting the amazing vocal music in Durham. Look out for further concerts and workshops here: www.durhamvocalfestival.co.uk/

The evening opened with a performance by Rebekah Fitch, a third-year ex-member of the ensemble whose promising skills as a singer/songwriter have been developing alongside her university career. Accompanying herself on loops, synths and piano, Fitch showcased several of her songs, including a new release, ‘Afraid of the Light’. Her vocal style is very distinct, commanding a diverse array of vocal timbres across a very wide range, all with great ease and dramatic character. This opening act was very warmly received, and was well placed to demonstrate the remarkable talent that this ensemble has attracted.

Soloist Rachel Dungate’s powerful and bright vocal tone was notable in the opening piece. An arrangement by Helen Butcher of Bird Set Free by Sia, this opening number showed some amazing choreography and interaction within the ensemble, and a remarkable ease of movement and vocal blend made it hard to believe that this was the group’s first performance with live mics. Following this impressive opening was another arrangement by Helen Butcher, this time alongside Seb Marlow, of Pharrell Williams’ Happy. This piece really showed the accurate, percussive sound of the chorus acting as a collective instrument. Despite a few issues with blocking – understandable in an unfamiliarly large space – the piece was vocally excellent. Credit should go to Ben Young for some particularly savvy choreography. After some particularly comedic comparing by Sam Arrowsmith, the set continued with arrangements of Nearness of You by Hoagy Carmichael and Hotline Bling by Drake. The first featured first-year Oscar Lingard as bass soloist, and Oscar breathed new life into this traditional standard with an authentic expressiveness over a smaller supporting chorus that, despite occasional tuning issues towards the beginning of the piece, coped exceptionally well with single-voice harmonies. The Drake arrangement provided the perfect contrast, with Alisha Bennett’s energetic and vibrant upper register providing an innovative and refreshing change from the original single.

Next, a showcase of some imaginative choreography by Sam Arrowsmith in a powerful performance of Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive by soloist Hannah McGreevy. There was exceptional character both from the soloist and the chorus, and the arrangement by Biff Sharrock and Oscar Lingard very authentically rendered the original. Finally, the first half ended with Seb Marlow’s arrangement of Don’t Look Back in Anger by Oasis, featuring guest soloist and ex-member Jake Moscop, whose authentic presence and emotive vocal delivery made this an excellent closing number for the first half. This piece was recorded by the ensemble in the summer of 2016, and can be found on youtube and at the Northern Light’s webpage: https://www.musicdurham.org/northern-lights/

After the interval the group returned with Marlow’s arrangement of Perfect by One Direction, followed by a medley from Disney’s Frozen. Marlow’s One Direction arrangement featured a quartet of soloists, Sam Arrowsmith, Emmanuel Adeagbo, Jamie Robinson and Seb Marlow, who also arranged this piece. A small microphone problem hardly took away from this unique performance, which retained some of the ‘boy band’ character while also incorporating interaction in the whole chorus. The Frozen medley was certainly light-hearted, and Helen Butcher’s arrangement featured brilliant transitions and hilarious characters. Particular credit should go to Seb Marlow and Sam Arrowsmith for their convincing opening roles as the film’s protagonist sisters. A more minimal chorus role and a very heartfelt solo by Luke Hill followed in Biff Sharrock and Rachel Dungate’s mashup arrangement of Jealous by Labrinth/Nick Jonas.

Yuki Matsumoto wowed and entertained the audience after this with an extraordinary and entertaining performance of vocal percussion, alongside some audience participation (with varying levels of success on the part of the audience!) A highly accomplished and entertaining act in its own right, this performance was an excellent showcase of the exceptional talents of the group’s vocal percussionist in isolation from his peers.

Another Soulful solo performance by Hannah McGreevy followed, with Changing by Paloma Faith arranged by Helen Butcher. This was followed by Lotte Jones’ arrangement of Lovers’ Eyes by Mumford and Sons featuring soloist Lucy Booth who projected adeptly over an increasingly powerful and complex accompanying choral texture. Following this was an exciting new arrangement by Hannah McGreevy of Bedshaped by Keane. The closing number was Helen Butcher and Seb Marlow’s arrangement of Shut up and Dance by Walk the Moon. A duet by Sam Arrowsmith and Bethany Wright featured just the right level of jauntiness while maintaining a lot of intensity. This piece showed off some of the most coordinated sound from the ensemble along with very authentic sounding bass and percussion that drew noticeable excitement from the audience.

This performance was a triumph for the group, who performed to a near-capacity theatre and managed to draw a diverse audience consisting of locals, students from all years, and people from further afield. With a successful Gala debut under their belts, the ensemble can look towards making a yearly appearance on this professional stage. We look forward to watching their progress into the summer.