City of Derry International Choral Festival

New Festival Chorus reaffirms the city's musical status in a pitch perfect opening gala performance

There is a distinctly Gallic flavour to tonight's opening gala concert in the Guildhall with organ and choral music by five French composers: César Franck, Henri Mulet, Eugène Gigout, Widor and Gabriel Fauré. Musically refreshing in these days of post-Brexit anxiety and gloom.

It's the inaugural outing too for the new ‘Festival Chorus’, a 100 plus choir from Codetta and members of other choirs in and around Derry, a reminder of the older ‘Festival Chorus’ of the mid-1990s when the city’s Two Cathedrals Festival was in its heyday. 

The City of Derry International Choral Festival, now in its fourth year, more than compensates for the demise of the Two Cathedrals, in five days of city-wide music-making and its joyous inclusion of foreign choirs, youth choirs and local ensembles.

The Gala Concert opener has Catherine Ennis on the Guildhall organ, someone, as Deputy Minister Martin McGuiness points out, with strong Irish connections, being the daughter of traditional musician and uilleann piper Seamus Ennis.

Ennis’s programme in the first half consists solely of 19th century French organ music, with Charles-Marie Widor’s Adagio and Toccata and Fugue being the best known of her three solos. Here, we would expect rapid and booming pedal-work, but instead, the organ fails to impress, perhaps due to some flawed technicality in the organ voicing. Some experienced organists present lament a lack of warmth in the reeds, rather than any flaw in Ennis’s execution of the piece.

In the first half, choral pieces by Codetta and the full Festival Chorus are sandwiched between the organ solos: César Franck’s 'Panis Angelicus', 'O Radiant Dawn' by James Macmillan, 'Sleep' by American composer Eric Whitacre, and Fauré’s 'Cantique de Jean Racine'.

In the second half the full chorus sing Fauré’s 'Requiem', with a sensitive and well sustained organ accompaniment by Ennis. It seems, however, a rather odd decision to end the first half with an organ solo, rather than with one of the choral pieces, which might have ended the varied first part on a 'choral high'.

The choral pieces are beautifully sung throughout, as we might expect from any choir conducted by Donal Doherty. Particularly moving is Codetta’s singing of Whitacre’s 'Sleep', with its long sustained note at the end and gradual dying away to nothing on the repeating of the final words of the piece, 'As I surrender unto sleep'.

Fauré’s 'Requiem' is finely sung in the second half, although again perhaps a peculiar choice for the full Festival Chorus. A grander piece such as Verdi’s 'Requiem', might have allowed more scope for the ensemble to excel at such size. Yet it does give us  some beautifully phrased solos from Grainne Logue (soprano) and Aaron O’Hare (baritone), and some gloriously pianissimo sections.

The penultimate 'Libera Me' section is particularly atmospheric and well delivered, with a suitably sustained, shimmering few bars at the end, worthy of any professional choir.

Fauré’s 'Requiem' is, however, essentially a reflective piece, best suited to a chamber choir the size of Codetta, not the kind of large-scale work that calls for a choir of over a hundred and the support of an organ the size of that in the Guildhall. As a result the strength of the chorus seems at times underused, and at other times a hint excessive.

The house is overflowing for the concert, and the audience in the Guildhall gives the organist, chorus and principals warm and appreciative applause, confirming what the Deputy First Minister had earlier asserted from the platform: that Derry has earned the right to be regarded as the ‘City of Music’.

Donal Doherty’s training of choirs – the older Codetta and newer, the Festival Chorus – and this 2016 Choral Festival, continues to build upon and enhance this musical reputation.

The City of Derry International Choral Festival continues until October 23. For more information and tickets visit www.codichoral.com.