For an average conductor, the job is simple; to make sure the musicians stay in time. For a half-decent conductor the role becomes more than this; to ensure that they are the safety-net between the musicians and a piece of music they are challenged by. For a good conductor, the job is enormous; they weave their ensemble with elegance through the music, reinforcing and adding to their work in rehearsal so that they create a performance in which the musicians achieve something they never thought they could. Thomas Brooke can do that. He is clear enough for his choir to know exactly when to place a chord, yet impassioned enough that every available thread of emotion is conjured from his score. With one flash of his Rachmaninov-like hand span his twenty three singers could exquisitely fill the Chapter House of Durham Cathedral with scorching sound before, in the next moment, a subtle gesture of his finger would direct them to the most sensitive of pianissiomos. Of course, he has a fantastic ensemble to work with, who have seen in their conductor a figure they can trust, who they respect and who they can share those oddly intimate moments of singer-conductor eye contact with.
Rachmaninov’s All Night Vigil is a perfect choice for this choir and as Fiona Brindle explains in her Manager’s Welcome, was chosen with the sensational acoustic of the Chapter House in mind. The piece is a favourite of singers and choral music aficionados alike, but is a huge sing and comes with its own unique set of challenges, not least the stamina needed to get through it and the difficulty of singing convincingly in Russian. The choir managed this magnificently, like the most seasoned of professionals they took these challenges in their stride and worked hard to ensure the text was clear and the sparkle remained from the first to last note. It is easy, too, for this piece to become a novelty of low bass notes, but the choir used their double basses well by balancing their sound so that the emphasis was on a beautiful chord as oppose to the bass note that sits at the bottom. Florian Störtz and James Quitmann were wonderful in this regard, especially at the end of the fifth movement, where they sunk sumptuously to a low B flat.
The solo work on show in the piece was, as to be expected from this choir, superb. Izzy Chinn was a brilliant alto soloist in the third movement, Blazhen Muzh and Sam Kibble made glorious contributions in the ninth movement, Blagosloven Yesi, Gospodi. The highlight was Philippe Durrant whose tenor solo in movement five, Nyne Otpushchayeshi, soared mellifluously over his colleagues and lead beautifully into Bogoroditse Devo, which is perhaps the most well-known movement of the work. Phil must be a contender for busiest musician at the University, being part of Chamber Choir, the Cathedral Choir, taking a leading role in the recent opera and playing for the University Big Band and Orchestral Society (with whom he is performing in the Gala Theatre next Friday evening).
Before the Rachmaninov, the concert started with a world premiere written specifically for this concert by Daniel Purtell, a music student at University of York. It must be a daunting task, as a composer, to write a piece to be performed alongside a work that is described as ‘the greatest musical achievement of the Russian Orthodox Church.’ The result was Cherubic hymn and it was simply divine. It managed to simultaneously pastiche the music of the Russian Orthodox Church and provide contrast through its use of modern effects and a more adventurous harmonic language. The work began with Emer Acton singing a haunting melody before being joined by a cascade of sopranos. It is amazing, as an audience member, to watch excellent performers sing such well-crafted new music.
In short, this was probably the best concert I have been to this year and it will take an awful lot to surpass the quality that was displayed – perhaps the only thing that is in with a chance of getting close is the Chamber Choir’s Easter Term concert in the Cathedral on 11th June.