Derry Choral Festival Continues to Hit the High Notes

With five days of inclusive performances and international competition, this year's concert series builds further on the city's singing tradition

For five days later this month the City of Derry International Choral Festival will bring choirs from all over the world to the North West for an event which has rapidly established itself as a mainstay of the Maiden City's cultural calendar.

In just its fourth year the festival has built on a successful inaugural outing during Derry~Londonderry's year as UK City of Culture in 2013. Last year it attracted up to 12,000 people to events.

This year the festival will present more than 60 choirs, six of them international, and has succeeded in attracting one of the world’s most renowned choirs, The Sixteen, back to the city for a second time in three years.

The festival has built on a tradition of choral music in the city, coupled with a relationship that the city has forged with musical competition in the local feis over generations. 

The sandstone Victorian grandeur of  St. Columb's Hall, with its beautiful acoustics, is the venue for most of the festival’s performances and competitions. The scene of many concerts down through the decades, including performances by legendary Irish tenor John McCormack, the hall is a direct link to Derry’s musical heritage.

The festival will be hard to escape in the city between October 19 and 23. Between competitions, concerts, a choral trail, a scared trail in a variety of churches, community concerts and a symposium, there will be dozens of performances at almost 40 different venues ranging from cathedrals to shopping centres in Derry and Strabane. 

As well as The Sixteen, a touring choir that has made over 140 recordings, highlights of the festival include German a cappella group Slixs, who will present their mix of jazz, pop, funk and classical, and Fauna – an all-female Norwegian vocal ensemble.



The schools competitions have attracted more entrants than ever with choirs from all over Ireland, as far away as Cork, and one school from England. The choral and sacred trails are made up of a range of choirs and choral groups from church choirs to community choirs, both local and visiting, while the international competition sees participants from as far as Indonesia contend with Ireland, the UK, Poland, Germany and Hungary.

For artistic director Dónal Doherty, that demonstrates the reach of the festival. 'It is genuinely on the world map for those choirs that want to attend international choral festivals,' he says. 'And it is obvious from our track record, including past winners and the international standard of adjudicators that we have attracted, that it is recognised and acknowledged by choirs who make a point of going to festivals right around the world.'

Choirs, including school choirs, can perform in competition or decide to perform non-competitively. This is an important element of the festival for Doherty. 

'It’s all about amateur music making across all sorts of standards and age groups. Competition is important, but it is not just about that. It’s just participatory. It’s people who go out to a cold drafty hall on a wet Thursday night and they sing their hearts out. The festival gives them an opportunity to present what they have been working on and to have it commented on by a team that is recognised as some of the foremost choral directors and conductors. And crucially it allows them to hear other choirs as well.'

While the festival has built on a musical tradition in Derry that has always supported a healthy choral scene, it has also encouraged choirs to form as well as coaching existing choirs out of those drafty halls. The festival would not work without the support of the local choirs, Doherty insists.

'There is not much point in us having a festival and labelling it international and just attracting choirs regardless of where they are from, if we don’t get the engagement of the local choirs. I know, for example, of a mixed voice choir in Strabane that was formed specifically because the festival existed. The festival has provided a goal and a target and a focus.'



For Doherty, the festival is a legacy from the City of Culture that has grown over the three years since its 2013 debut. 'It is the single most successful initiative that is still, not just surviving, but flourishing three years after,' he says.

Doherty is a renowned organist and choir master and has been immersed in the environment of choral music for most of his life. His achievements include helping the establishment of Two Cathedrals’ Festival in Derry in 1992 and the City of Derry Civic Choirs in 1997. 

As a music educator, he was appointed head of music services for the western region in 1996 and assumed responsibility for the southern region in 2011. He oversaw the delivery of the Music Promise initiative as part of the inaugural UK City of Culture programme.

While 2013 provided the creative environment, and as importantly the funding, he had never intended it to be just a one-off for City of Culture. It was as founder and director of Codetta, the Derry-based internationally recognised chamber choir, that the vision of an international choral festival based in Derry began to crystallise.

The experience gained from over ten years of travelling to international competitions and Doherty’s own experience as a conductor and adjudicator helped to establish the festival and attract choirs and adjudicators from around the world.

'We spread the word. It is through contacts and through respecting the quality that you are providing or hope to be able to provide, because it is a big commitment for choirs to take the risk to come to a festival, particularly in its first one, two or three, or ten years even.

'The experience we would have gained by attending festivals, we have brought that experience back, because really the festival at its heart is run by the members of Codetta. It was an ambition that we had as a group and that has manifested itself now – 2013 gave us the excuse and we have pushed on.'


While 2013 was an easier time to launch such an event in terms of funding, the climate has since become more challenging Doherty admits. Support this year comes from the Arts Council, National Lottery, Tourism Northern Ireland, Derry City Council, RTÉ Lyric FM and locally the Derry Journal and City Hotel.

'We constantly have to seek support from funders whether that be in the public sector or private sector, but no international festival of this calibre can continue without that support and Tourism NI recognises the benefits that accrue from so many people visiting the city.'

The numbers attending and the interest from choirs show that the festival has connected into the growing interest in choral singing in recent years.

For Doherty, it is the simple joy of singing with a group of people that is at the heart of the festival. 'It’s the social thing of being together with people with a shared vision or focus,' he says. 'That could be playing football, it could knitting, it could be doing anything. But the added element of singing is that it is such a physical thing.

'You are using your body in a very physical way, it is energising in that sense. Then invariably what you get is that whatever effort you make, the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts. That’s the experience.'

The fourth City of Derry International Choral Festival takes place in venues throughout the city from October 19 - 23. For detailed event information and ticket booking visit or from the Millennium Forum box office