On the 4th of December, equipped with a substantial array of Christmas choral music, Durham University Chamber Choir graced the chapel of Hild Bede for their first concert of the academic year. Led by 3rd year music student Tom Brooke, a much calmer and more contained chamber choir than in recent years delighted the relatively full chapel with a high standard of traditional Christmas music. The chapel of Hild Bede provided an exceptionally pleasant escape from the harsh weather outside, due to its warmth and desirable acoustics.
The choir began with what seemed to be a safe yet strong choice, Gombert’s Lugebat David Absalon.From the offset it became immediately clear that there would be no hesitance under Brooke’s conductorship. The fluidity and transparency with which he led certainly gave the impression of a confident leader who evidently displayed control of his choir.
Rheinberger’s Cantus Missae: Mass in Eb Major provided the opportunity for DUCC’s talent to flourish, with dynamic ability effortlessly displayed by the sopranos during the Kyrie that undoubtedly captivated an eager audience. By the Gloria it was now evident that the choir had settled, albeit a tad late for a group of this calibre. By this point it became evident that a pitch gauge would make a regular appearance prior to each song, again an unusual feature for a choir of this experience.
An unexpected delight lay in the premier of Daniel Purtell’s take on Silent Night, commissioned especially for the concert. The up and coming composer from York enabled the men of DUCC to thrive in the second verse, with a noticeable contribution from James Quitmann and Matthew Asquith. The last verse provided the most noticeable development of harmony in the first half of the concert. Sweeping chromatacisms under a charming and clear solo by Clare Ward rounded off a rather pleasant arrangement of this Christmas classic. I suddenly became aware of how close I was sitting to the choir in the closing item of the first half, Holst’s Nunc Dimittis. The sheer volume effortlessly produced by all 22 members almost literally blew me away. An interval of (free) mince pies and pleasantly strong mulled wine certainly made the evening a perfectly pleasant introduction to the festive season.
The goal for Tom Brooke this year is to ‘challenge the choir’ with extensive repertoire, an aim certainly manifested through the Quatre motets pour le temps de Noël by Poulenc. This piece of 20th century French polyphony undoubtedly displayed the choir’s loyalty to their conducter, as all eyes were set upon him for direction, which was afforded through a concise conducting technique. At this point, one felt that they had been fed a sufficient variation in repertoire. Audience feedback on the whole suggested that there might have been more to be desired in the performance of traditional Christmas carols.
The solo talent of the choir cannot be undermined, as Crispin Lord proved through his part in A Spotless Rose. Clarity and diction were absolute in this solo, proving that a strict rehearsal schedule has not gone to waste. However, attention to dynamic contrast may have been overlooked as moments of enchanting solo competed for attention with the almost overpowering choral accompaniment. A return to the elegant and traditional 15th century setting of Veni, Veni Emannuel, accompanied by an unfortunate lack of facial expression created a rather sudden haunting atmosphere. There can be no doubt about the precision and clarity of this choir, however a smile or two would not go awry especially during a Christmas choral concert…
A welcomed pick up from the sobriety of the Lawson, Lully, Lulla, Lullay featured the graceful solo work of soprano Hannah Cox. The concert ended as it began, with beautiful yet almost safe choices in music. An encore featuring Once In Royal David City rounded off an evening of, on the whole, tantalisingly festive choral music.
The appearance of many new faces proves that Durham’s strong choral tradition is forever growing and in high demand. These recent additions intertwined with the choir’s veterans gave an overall impression of sheer confidence that captivated a satisfied audience. Kudos must be awarded to Publicity Officer Matthew Asquith on the success of his advertising that led to a high attendance. Durham University Chamber Choir’s next concert is to be found in the Castle Great Hall in conjunction with Durham University Orchestral Society on the 14th of December.