Live Review: Durham University Choral Society and Durham Opera Ensemble – Mendelssohn’s “Elijah”

Music takes in a fantastic performance of Mendelssohn’s epic oratorio by the joint forces of Durham University Choral Society and Durham Opera Ensemble, at the fitting location of Durham Cathedral.


Durham University Choral Society, in partnership with Durham Opera Ensemble, impressed a packed audience with their ambitious performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah.  Walking into the Cathedral, we were greeted by student members of the choir and Cathedral staff alike. There was a sense of togetherness between students and local residents, young people and older people, that often seems lacking from University life. The warmly lit Cathedral was the perfect location for the performance.

Durham Cathedral, despite its grand size, only helped the atmosphere of the music to feel more monumental and sacred.

Neither orchestra nor choir seemed too loud, but the sound was never lost in the monumental space. The resonance of the Cathedral was used dramatically and successfully to create full-bodied music sustained throughout the 2-hour performance. While the orchestral numbers created atmosphere, it was the soloists that caused members of the audience to sit up and crane their necks. And there were many: Alexander Lee, Emma Burke, Hannah McKay, Sarah Pierce, Sophie Horrocks, Emily Berringer, Adam Brown, Alex Milne, Yousuf Mirza and Nathanael Thomas-Atkin.

Hannah McKay and Emma Burke’s duet with the chorus, “Lord! bow thine ear to our prayer!”, was one of the many highlights of the evening.

Hannah McKay’s intense first solo set the bar high, but she and the other soloists consistently met it. Each time we saw her stand up we expected a performance as glittering as her dress; we were never disappointed.  The first soprano and alto duet, performed by Hannah McKay and Emma Burke, was fantastic. The timbre of the two voices were evenly matched, and the tone was light and natural.  Nathanael Thomas-Atkin should be praised for his fantastic diction and animated style. He was able to create a range of emotion from anger to sadness and was convincing throughout.  Alexander Lee, as Elijah, should also be praised for his even tone and range of vocal register and dynamics. His performances were outstanding through solos, trios, quartets and double quartets.

I heard a lady in the row in front of me whisper to her partner, “They’re so talented, I’m so glad we came!”

I heard a lady in the row in front of me whisper to her partner, “they’re so talented, I’m so glad we came!”; A true testament to the ability of the soloists to engage the audience. More relaxed moments came from choral and orchestral parts. Director and Conductor Nathan Smith was successful in balancing a 70-strong choir and an orchestra almost as large. A cello solo by Sophie Baxter filled the space beautifully, supported but not overwhelmed by the rest of the orchestra.

Conductor Nathan Smith cut an animated figure throughout the concert, directing both orchestra and choir with the necessary vigour and precision.

There were a few moments where the chorus did not come together to its full potential, and on occasion phrasing was lost. The sound was, in quieter moments, too soft-centred and lacking in tonal range. Despite some lapses in togetherness, the choir were nonetheless a crucial part in creating the intensity and atmosphere. The louder parts of the piece, especially, made the most of the vocal power of the chorus. Furthermore, the technical difficulty of the piece was highlighted at moments when the choir split into 8 parts; something which was done to great effect.

The 70-strong choir were a crucial part in creating the intensity and atmosphere

Overall, this performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah was a huge accomplishment. I particularly appreciated the choice to sing the piece in English, rather than the original German, which allowed me to follow the stories better than I would have otherwise. A member of the choir told me that this concert saw the largest audience turnout of the academic year. Nathan Smith deserves full praise for rising to the challenge of this lengthy and complex oratorio and bringing together such a range of people to realise it.

Images: Young-in Youn.

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