Choral singing in Durham has a fantastically long and rich history – the Chorister School has been celebrating its 600th anniversary this year and there were monks singing daily in the Cathedral before that. In January, singers across the city and beyond, from primary school children to some of the biggest names in national choral music, come together to celebrate singing in the first Durham Vocal Festival.
The festival has been organised by Mike Summers, head of Durham Music Service, and many of the events are being hosted in the Music Service’s magnificent new home at Ushaw College, with larger concerts at the cathedral, such as the opening event, when Durham Choral Society give the UK premiere of Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín, which tells the moving story of a group of concentration camp prisoners defying their captors and their circumstances to perform Verdi’s Requiem. I hear that tickets are selling very fast for this, so book soon.
Another event that is likely to be extremely popular is the concert by the King’s Singers at the Cathedral on Monday 28 January. This sextet of male voices combine exquisite singing with a flair for entertaining: you’ll almost certainly hear their characteristic sound if you tune into the classical radio stations over Christmas, and this concert will undoubtedly bring some cheer to a dark January evening.
I’m sure many of you watched North East Voices of Hope as they sang their way to victory in “Choir of the Year” a few weeks ago – I particularly enjoyed their glowing performance of Will Todd’s Christus est Stella, a piece that is drenched in North East heritage as it’s by a composer born in Durham, and sets the words from Bede’s tomb in Durham Cathedral. You can hear this stunning choir as part of the Festival’s Chamber Choir celebration along with Northern Spirit Singers, who won the Adult category in Choir of the Year a couple of years ago: proof enough of that North East has plenty of serious singing talent. Two other leading local chamber choirs, The Durham Singers and the Sage Chamber Choir will also be singing, and although I don’t know the details of the programme (except that the Durham Singers slot might include Howells and Palestrina), I’m sure there will be a really fascinating variety of repertoire, as well as the opportunity to hear all four choirs singing together.
The wonderful thing about singing is that there are so many opportunities to have a go and get involved, and whatever your level of experience, there’ll be something for you to enjoy at Will Todd’s Come and Sing day on 29 January. The festival also recognises the huge role that church music plays in our choral heritage: I’ve not listed the services here, as that’s beyond what I can cover on this site, but you can find all the details on the festival web page.
Getting the next generation excited about choral music is also vitally important, and there are plenty of events for schoolchildren and teachers too, including a visit from a specially selected group of young singers from the National Youth Choir of Great Britain. Appropriately, the whole festival concludes with a gala concert of youth choirs in the cathedral.