Everyone always knew it was going to be an outstanding concert. How could it not be when it featured three of the best musical groups that Music Durham has to offer? The fact that it has sold out two years in a row is another testament to the quality of the ensembles. But this Christmas feast nevertheless exceeded all my expectations.

The evening started with Northern Lights, who presented their first and only concert performance of this term. Everyone was excited to hear how the new members would compare and if the blend of the ensemble was up to its usual standard – and they didn’t disappoint. Although their set was rather less Christmassy than I would have liked, it was no less engaging and exciting to watch. The chemistry on stage was really extraordinary, although this was perhaps not surprising given the fact that the members practically live in each other’s pockets (rehearsing 3 times a week!). What was also clear was the group’s desperate need for their own microphones. The acoustics of the town hall unfortunately did not help in this regard, with the sound not travelling far beyond the first few rows and some solos getting lost in the many layers or their arrangements. On the whole, however, this did not detract from the incredible performance. A special shout out has to go to the remarkable voice of newbie Rachel Dungate. Singing Bird Set Free by Sia she sang her heart out, and you could see the powerful effect that her rendition had on the captivated audience. The caramel tones of Maddy Wattles, another new member of the choir, were equally enchanting, and we finally felt ushered into Christmas with the classic All I want for Christmas is You.
We were next treated to the most Christmassy of stories, Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman. This ingenious addition to the concert was delivered masterfully by DUOS, conducted by John Reddel and narrated by Sam Arrowsmith. Sam’s narration was something special as he transported the audience through the story in the most dramatic and engaging fashion. Again, the experience varied depending on your seat as the amplification didn’t carry over the orchestra if you were more than four rows back, but I was personally treated to a truly magical experience! Sam captured my attention fully and the orchestra was outstandingly good – Reddel directed with such clarity they had no choice but to play with the precision and style you come to expect from DUOS. In particular the violins, led by Sergei Batishchev, displayed a level of accuracy and technique second to none in Durham. Of course, the musical journey of The Snowman reached its particular height at the entrance of soprano soloist Ella Philips, who delighted us with her angelic voice and enchanting performance. It was an absolute treat.

As the second act opened we had the pleasure of hearing DUOS once again, this time conducted by the dynamic Alex Mackinder, who was truly exciting to watch. From his Christmas Santa hat falling off mid-performance, to tucking his shirt back in after every piece, he was so engaging and dynamic, and his energy was infectious. The orchestra and Mackinder clearly have an excellent connection as they again demonstrated professionalism, following Mackinder’s direction to the letter.
The Christmas classic Sleigh Ride was fabulous and of course wonderfully cheesy, although the whip was unfortunately behind the beat on its crucial entries. What I loved most, however, was that DUOS played it with as much precision, energy and skill as Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony or another of their more ‘serious’ works. They took great care and played every note with expertise, and with such a golden collection of high standard players it is no surprise they played so well. The DUOS players must be exhausted – this was their fourth concert of the term!

As the Chamber Choir entered I have to admit that initially I was rather nervous at what to expect. Not one member of the choir was smiling as they walked on stage. However, as soon as they started singing their miserable facial expressions could be forgiven! It was a glorious sound. George Cook demonstrated excellent musical leadership as he focused the choir and directed their dynamics and phrasing with finesse. The two arrangements by Danny Purtell were particular favourites of mine, delivered with real skill which we have come to expect from a performance by the Chamber Choir. The blend and tone quality of the ensemble, as well as those solo moments which shone through, was brilliant.

The Chamber Choir joined DUOS for an epic arrangement of Carol of the Bells and God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman. The music was impressive and exciting and came together extremely well. It is hard to believe that this concert came together on such little rehearsal time – one or two rehearsals at most! It was fantastic. However, it was a huge shame that many of the Chamber Choir didn’t know the words well enough to Carol of the Bells. To be fair, there are many to learn, but when contrasted with the standard of their own set we felt a little short changed – the sopranos especially had their eyes glued to the music rather more than I would have liked.

The concert concluded full of festive cheer with a collaborative rendition of The Twelve Days of Christmas, and it was great to have all the performers on stage again in the very intimate space of the Town Hall. Although the quality of this last song was not up to the standard of the rest of the set, there was such a Christmas electricity in the air that this can be overlooked.

This really was a feel-good concert, and with every minute of it performed to such a high standard it was hard not to go away buzzing; buzzing about Christmas, just a few weeks away, but also about music and, of course, the high standard of some of the remarkable musicians in Durham.

“I loved every second”
“A fabulous evening”