City Songs

Eriks Ešenvalds' new composition is premiered at the City of Derry International Choral Festival

The people of Derry~Londonderry have always loved their choirs, and those of us who brave the rain to crowd into St Columb’s Hall for the second evening concert of the inaugural City of Derry International Choral Festival are not disappointed.

It is another high point of the UK City of Culture year – the near-capacity audience is treated to an exciting and varied choral mix, a showcase of local and international singing talent.

There is Latvian Voices, seven young women from Riga singing modern arrangements of folk-songs; Codetta, the Encore Contemporary Choir and the Colmcille Ladies’ Choir from Derry; the Holst Singers and the Roundhouse Choir from London; and finally, local school children, looking suitably angelic, of the recently formed Music Promise Junior Choir.

The City of Derry Choral Festival is the brainchild of Dónal Doherty, music director of the City of Culture’s ‘Music Promise’, one of the cornerstones of the original Culture Bid Document. Doherty is also co-founder of the fondly remembered Two Cathedrals Festival of the 1990s, and this new choral festival revives something of the former’s bold vision.

It has ‘big exciting sounds’, a choral and a sacred trail through the city, innovatory workshops, and – as in the 1990s – performances in a broad range of city venues. Churches, shopping centres, libraries, department stores and open, public spaces: all have choirs and ensembles direct from the festival platform.

The majority of events, however, are held in St Columb’s Hall, home to the popular variety concerts and pantomimes of the 1960s. And the atmosphere within the Hall at the second concert shows that it has lost none of its magic. In spite of, or maybe because of the large number of singers – seven choirs, about 250 singers in total – the concert has the intimacy and friendliness of a small town gathering.

City Songs


The Latvian Voices ensemble provide the first half of the concert, with their atmospheric, and at times, upbeat and jazzy renditions of Latvian folksongs. Predictably their rendition of ‘Danny Boy’, in an arrangement by the Latvian composer Eriks Ešenvalds, draws warm applause. Like John McCormack, who sang on that same stage in October 1909, this Latvian choir know how to please a local audience.

The second half is devoted to the Irish premiere of Ešenvalds’ new work, City Songs, with libretto by the young Australian poet, Emma Jones. Narrator and solo singer is Grammy award-winning Imogen Heap, a fellow collaborator on the project.

Stephen Layton, conductor of the London Sinfonia, directs the six choirs, four local and two English, with members of the Orchestra of Ireland, plus piano and xylophone. Derry-born musician and City of Culture ambassador Gerard McChrystal adds his own touch of flair to the work with saxophone solos, beautifully integrated with the whole. His playing alone is reason to be present.

This new work, a more upbeat 21st century Winterreise, is about a traveller returning to her (unnamed) native city hoping to find her childhood home. In the course of a single day – from dawn to nightfall – she meets with ‘workers, pedestrians, commuters, buskers and customers’ until she finally reaches her former home ‘down the crest of a hill’.

Of this musical journey, the programme notes: ‘Returning to one’s native place is always a pilgrimage with lots of memories and emotions.’ This theme of memory may have had particular resonance in Derry~Londonderry in this year of the ‘Irish Gathering’, when so many have ‘come home’ for the City of Culture events.

As the song sequence progresses, each of the traveller's encounters is represented by a different choir, with each section characterised by a different musical style: gospel, rock, film score, barbershop, jazz, hip-hop and a hymn-like chorale.

Most effective of all are the parts when all six choirs sing and sway in unison. At the end, the opening ‘Radio’ theme returns again in a fortissimo climax by all the choirs, representing a street parade that leads the traveller home. It dies away finally into silence, leaving the narrator the last word in a decreasing ‘wake-like’ lament as darkness falls.

Directing and co-ordinating so many choirs, soloists and orchestral musicians cannot have been easy, but Stephen Layton takes it all in his stride. From the opening words, which he himself delivered in a parody of a Radio One announcer, to the closing bars, Layton has the orchestral and vocal forces totally under his control. The result is an exhilarating performance, with few – if any – musical flaws.

If there is a criticism to make of the performance it is that it is not always easy to make out the words being sung. (A printed libretto, such as was provided in the programme for the ‘Sixes and Sevens’ Cantata in the Guildhall in June, would have helped here.) This is true even of narrator Imogen Heap, whose swaying and waving of her arms about at the microphone are also distracting. Her diction could also have been better.

Otherwise the acoustics in the recently refurbished St Columb’s Hall are superb, and superior to those of the newer Millennium Forum nearby. But few at the concert seem inclined to carp. Overall, it is a compelling performance and a worthy competitor in musical terms to the Turner Prize galleries at Ebrington across the Foyle.

Images courtesy of Lorcan Doherty Photography.

City Songs