Saturday, 26 October 2013


A full house bears witness to “one of the most treasured cultural happenings” in Derry-Londonderry

Numerous memorable musical extravaganzas such as Sons & Daughters, Music City and the Fleadh have helped to cement the City Of Culture 2013's reputation as a "City Of Song"; and the city's inaugural International Choral Festival stands poised to enhance it. A cavalcade of cosmopolitan choirs have descended upon Derry-Londonderry for the first time, and we won't be forgetting their impact in a hurry.

In the words of tonight's presenter, Mark Patterson, we are set for "one of the most treasured cultural happenings" in the city. The question is: Does the City Songs concert, regarded as central to the success of the festival, live up to its billing?

The omens are good. The opening gala concert the night before has been, by all accounts, a phenomenal success, translating into a full house in an incandescently lit St. Columb's Theatre.

Enter Latvian Voices, seven Eastern European young ladies in multi-cultural attire. The style of their clothing is reflected in the tone of their singing early on – impressive but inconsistent. I am initially impressed by their range and chemistry, but yet to be truly absorbed.

Fortunately, these seven girls soon earn their corn and deserved applause through an eclectic mix of traditional and modern folk, laden with multiple octave singing, rippling tempos, ear-piercing vocal solos and human beat-boxing.

"Gloria" and "Sanctus" are highly commendable; think Mozart's "Requiem" with a relaxing jazzy beat and Lakme's "Flower Duet" on top. But they save their best 'til the end, notably a spine-tingling rendition of "Danny Boy", arranged by Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds, and a version of the U2 classic "I Still Haven't Found What I’m Looking For" (listen below) that ought to have even Bono eating his heart out.

It's enough for a good evening's entertainment. Yet when choirs start gathering around the audience following the interval, we know that we've only been served the appetizer before the main course.

That being, City Songs, a newly commissioned work by Ešenvalds, Australian poet Emma Jones and British artist Imogen Heap, which sees six choirs come together with the Orchestra of Ireland for a musical narrative based in a city "upon a hill".

It could be any city, but the descriptions within the piece fit Derry-Londonderry to a tee. Harmony after harmony adorns the theatre of St. Columba as the Holst Singers, Codetta, the Roundhouse Choir, Encore Contemporary Choir and Colmcille Ladies slowly make their way to join the Music Promise Junior Choir on stage. It's like Music City in a music hall.

Conductor Stephen Layton, a fundamental presence, enunciates in Radio DJ speak, signifying the beginning of our narrative. A young traveller – Heap – enters a city at dawn, listening to the radio ("The Radio") and looking for her childhood home. City history is explored through a series of distinctive contrasts, with Heap’s broken and vulnerable improvisation alongside the Music Promise Choir’s optimistic depiction of a village becoming a city, a small city becoming huge, possibly even a burgeoning choir becoming great ("The City")... a pattern is starting to emerge.

Through interacting with the Roundhouse Choir ("Workers"), the Holst Singers ("Pedestrians") and poetry from Emma Jones, Heap relays to us the difficulty of finding one’s way in a city, while the choirs around her musically transmit the situations and personalities of differing citizens to the audience. "Buskers" goes one step further, with not only Heap's vocals impressing but also the thematic richness of the composition itself. The struggle, nature, wisdom and talent of street singers are delivered in a clear and pleasant manner by the Colmcille Ladies. Shades of Paul Muldoon and Mark Anthony Turnage's "At Sixes And Sevens" are evident here.

Donal Doherty’s Codetta Choir get their chance to excel in "Voices" and "Customers", the latter featuring a standout solo from Helen O'Hare. Here, the traveller follows the tune of an ice-cream truck to find a way home; it is intriguing how much poetry can be drawn from the sight, sound and food of such a familiar vehicle.

The careful structure of the piece, which allows all choirs and especially Heap to fully express themselves, continues right up to the finale, through the happiness of "Commuters", the moody, dreamy "The City (Night)" and a rumination on homecoming, "Road Motet", where the traveller concludes that sometimes the journey is better than the arrival. With the quality of the singing and instrumentals stellar throughout, it is best to focus on the tone of the piece and how it relates to the narrative; and it relates extremely well.

When the spectacular opening rhythm of "Radio" repeats itself in the joyful "Parade", Derry-Londonderry unites in song as singers wash around the spectators again, the vocals slowly fading into the closing, solitary and melancholic prose of Heap. As regretful as her final monologue sounds, it is clear that she and her character never felt alone; and on a night awash with talent, neither did we.

The inaugural City Of Derry International Choral Festival runs until Sunday October 27. For more information, visit