By James Mcfarlane
After seeing a stellar performance of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius at the BBC Proms last summer, I was thrilled to find out this work was to be Durham University Choral Society’s Epiphany Term project. Following their recent performative successes, including Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony and a choral reimagination of Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, evidently nothing is too ambitious for this accomplished ensemble.
Involving over one hundred of the university’s finest choral singers, Sunday 26 February saw The Sage, Gateshead filled with a mélange of majestic Elgarian schmaltz and robust, cataclysmic dynamism. Singing alongside Cleveland Philharmonic Choir and accompanied by the Mowbray Orchestra, the magnitude and enormity of sound produced was palpable. It was particularly poignant for DUCS to collaborate with professional local musicians, including our own conductor John Forsyth MBE, in a true spectacle of regional pride.
Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius (1900) considers the journey of a pious man’s soul from his deathbed to judgment before God. Adopting theologically poetic text written by Cardinal John Henry Newman, Gerontius (Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts) encounters an angel (Anna Huntley) who guides him to judgement. On their journey, they encounter a priest and the Angel of Agony (Morgan Pearse), culminating in a final re-awakening to glory.
The concert’s soloists were sublime, and a mention must go to Huntley for her rich timbre, inspiring an angelic, glowing power. Pearse’s roles were too conveyed with true conviction, sharing his resounding tone, creating an inexpressibly profound stage presence. Lloyd-Roberts also deserves ineffable credit for igniting the work’s captivating narrative, battling through illness, sharing his powerful quasi-recitative approach, truly living and breathing the gerontic role.
Overall, the concert was a profound success and DUCS are indebted to Cleveland Philharmonic Choir for this collaborative choral venture. The Sage also deserves huge kudos for providing a platform on which professional student musicmaking can happen. The collective thanks to John Forsyth MBE go without saying; he helped revive the ensemble post-pandemic and continues to inspire the next generation of choral singers. DUCS’ President, Tom Cameron, and his executive committee have also worked tirelessly to pull out all the stops, and this is no mean feat, so congratulations to all.
John Forsyth MBE
What enticed you to pursue a career in music education?
Singing has always been in my life, like breathing, but for a while I wanted a career as a Classical Guitar soloist. However, I missed singing and came to realise the lonely solo life wasn’t for me. My involvement in Music Education is a story in itself; I have always found it compelling. I love being able to nurture young and older minds to understand and love the beauty and joy of music-making.
What do you like about working with DUCS, and student singers in particular?
DUCS for me is a sheer joy. At 75, music removes all age barriers and when I work with the choir, I feel we are indivisible. We are simply musicians making music. Each member of the choir brings youthful vigour and a desire to learn, grow, share experience and of course, wonderful voices. The Dream of Gerontius is a work that I cherish for its beauty, intellectual challenge, and statement of belief.
Tom Cameron (DUCS president)
Do you have any highlights from your time in DUCS?
DUCS was the first society I joined at Durham, and it has given me so many wonderful experiences. The highlight of my time with the choir so far would be last year’s Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and Mozart’s Requiem concert, performing to a sold-out Cathedral. John always tells us how music is all about moments; the thirty seconds of silence after the finale of the Chichester Psalms was certainly one of those special moments.
Why should singers audition for DUCS?
As president, I am responsible for the artistic direction of the society and am honoured to have worked with groups such as the Royal Northern Sinfonia and the Cleveland Philharmonic Choir this year. DUCS offers amazing musical experiences, including an international tour to Poland this year, and anyone with an interest in choral singing should audition!
Image Credit: John Carter