It is undisputed that Sir Thomas Allen is one of the finest lyric baritones of our time and so it seemed only fitting that his surprise birthday celebrations, held at Durham Castle last night, featured some of the university’s top singers and instrumentalists.
A string quartet, featuring Chris Hirschman, Tim Seegar and Clare Durgan, greeted the Chancellor and his guests upon arrival, with guests in the Great Hall arriving to the sounds of the Big Band, before an introduction from another of the string quartet’s members, Experience Durham’s Head of Music Development, Jessica Lawrence. In her speech, she mentioned the awed reaction of one of the students at having been invited to sing at this event, saying that he was his “hero”, something that was echoed by many people throughout the evening.
The first performance was given by the Opera Ensemble and displayed the talent of both the excellent soloists and the company altogether. Marnie Blair gave a brilliant and sultry rendition of Carmen’s Habanera aria (L’amour est un oiseau rebelle), before Hattie Ekbery and Lewis Whyte entertained with the Papageno/Papagena duet from The Magic Flute. Also included were the Sola, sola in buio loco sextet from Don Giovanni and the return of a brilliant arrangement of Summertime from Porgy and Bess by Roderick Williams.
During the breaks for the guests to mingle and enjoy the atmosphere of the impressive building, the Big Band brought further excitement to the evening with their upbeat music. The band, featuring two fantastic solo singers, impressed Sir Thomas, who was seen dancing along at points during the evening.
The Sovereign Singers gave the second concert-style performance of the evening and visited a wide range of styles, from pop (Never Gonna Give You Up) and traditional (Loch Lomond) to jazz classics (A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square and Cole Porter’s brilliant Miss Otis Regrets). Their programme gave soloists Tom Rowarth and Meg Griffiths a chance to shine, as well as using the entire ensemble to fullest effect through complex harmonies, and this was well received by the guests in the hall.
After another opportunity to talk and move about, it was time for the Light Opera Group (DULOG) to take to the stage, aptly choosing to begin with Willkommenfrom Cabaret. This high-energy set took guests through varying styles of musical theatre, from Tim Minchin’s When I Grow Up from Matilda to Broadway legend Sondheim’s Send in the Clowns from A Little Night Music, via songs in a more popular styles, Jersey Boy’s Walk Like A Man (with impressive falsetto from Mike Vasmer), Footloose’s, Let’s Hear It For The Boy and The Bodyguard’s I want to Dance With Somebody.
The evening closed with Sir Thomas thanking the musicians and organisers for the effort they put into the evening and his guests for coming, emphasising the importance of music in our time and reminding everyone that music is definitely “of use”, before treating everyone to a spontaneous rendition of a song. Finally, everyone joined in a rousing chorus of ‘Happy Birthday’, a treat with so many musicians harmonising!
Happy birthday again, Sir Thomas