Review: Durham University Choral Society Ephipany Concert

Durham University Choral Society’s Epiphany Concert was certainly set to be an exciting event, drawing from some of the best musical talent Durham has to offer in the Orchestral Society and the Chamber Choir as well as the Choral Society (DUCS) itself. We were told from the beginning the concert would be a reflection on the Cathedral’s intention to embrace the old and new; the concert would premiere a contemporary piece composed especially for the concert by Durham alumnus Ben Rowarth, followed by the much loved Mozart ‘Requiem’, a contrast that was starkly noticeable but refreshing to hear.

Ben Rowarth’s commissioned work – Christus: A Passiontide Sequence – is an oratorio with unaccompanied choral sections spaced with mainly sting and harp orchestral sections and solos. The piece is introduced with a long pedal note that gradually layers over the rest of the choir, accompanied by a peculiar violin solo and steadily rising to a cacophony of falling phrases. It was clear this wasn’t what the majority of the crowd expected from a ‘Passiontide Sequence’.

The story of the final days of Jesus’s life was told using translated biblical texts in English and was exquisitely performed by the soloists made up of students and alumni of Durham. I was especially impressed by Peter Coulson, a bass lay clerk at Durham Cathedral who has sung in the London Philharmonic Choir and achieved success in operatic groups elsewhere. In the ‘Motet’ movement, over a steady string accompaniment, he really brought his solo to the fore; capturing the despair in the words well, it made for a dramatic part of the piece. Charlotte La Thorpe as the soprano soloist also performed beautiful solos, producing some of the most emotive moments in the sequence.

It must be said the cathedral was a fantastic venue for this composition. The slow and sombre tone of the piece was well suited to the vast stone building which reverberated with every note. Dense and dissonant harmonies were sent ringing around the cavernous hall while rich open chords filled the space in remarkable style. At one point the choir split in two, sending half the singers to the back of the nave; an intricate polyphony ensued as the soloists performed a trio over haunting murmuring and whispering from both choirs which gave a real intensity to the piece.

The composition was undoubtedly effective and intriguing to hear in such a setting but overall did not leave a great impression on me. The orchestration was often lacking, Rowarth’s handling of the string solos was never interesting and seemed an afterthought to the choral arrangements. The dissonant harmony ranged from uplifting and rich to predictable clichés and for all the tense cluster chords diving into open rising passages the music never captured the passion in the story of Christ. Odd effects like distinct swelling of the tempo, and exposed and held semitone clashes seemed forced and failed to be innovative or emotive. I would however say I enjoyed the piece but because of the programmer’s decision, it was always going to fall short of the piece that followed.

Mozart’s requiem is one of the most celebrated sacred works in the choral repertoire. It has been performed countless times for good reason and since it’s likely the majority of the choir and orchestra had at one point performed it before, the onus was with the conductor to shape the masterpiece anew. Michael Summers has recently replaced James Lancelot as conductor of DUCS, who after over twenty years conducting the prestigious Durham choir has moved onto a national stage. Michael Summers hopes to bring a new youthful energy to the choir; this could instantly be heard in the furious opening movement, enlivening the cathedral with its dramatic sequences and exquisite arrangement. The piece is clearly a pleasure to sing and play; the choir sang with vigour and really captured the despair and intensity of the piece. The ‘Recordare, Jesu pie’ movement was perfectly handled with a quartet of the soloists singing over fabulous cascading string melodies, this was a personal highlight of the requiem. This was in no small part due to the conductor’s ability to lead both choir and orchestra, highlighting the beautiful melodies whilst keeping the intricate counterpoint rich.

DUCS showed off their great talent in this concert, showing the aptitude in both classical and modern styles. The conductor had certainly drilled them into a fantastic unit and made the music into more than just the composition on the page. The choir could benefit from some balancing; the male contingent was too quiet, which was especially evident in some of the trickier section of the requiem.

The DUCS Epiphany Concert was a very enjoyable evening and certainly was a step in the right direction for Durham classical music, which typically shies away from contemporary styles. The event showcased a fantastic collaboration of talent from students and alumni in a wonderful venue altogether making an original concert, the like of which I would love to see more often.

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