Nicola Lisle talks to Merton College Choir conductor Benjamin Nicholas about an ‘extra special’ gala concert

When Merton College wanted to put on a special concert to mark its 750th anniversary, it didn’t take long to choose The Dream of Gerontius — the piece that Elgar famously declared to be “the best of me”.

Director of Music Benjamin Nicholas hopes the concert will also show the best of Merton College Choir, which since its rebirth in 2008 has established a reputation as one of the leading collegiate mixed-voice choirs.

“Choral music has become our strongest focus musically at Merton, so we wanted to do one of the large choral works for this extra special concert,” he explains. “When everyone starts thinking about large choral works, there’s no better work than Gerontius. I think Elgar struck a chord. “Also, this is a particular favourite of the Warden’s, so I think he was excited by the prospect of The Dream of Gerontius.”

The Merton Choir will join forces with the Kodály Choir, the college’s non-auditioning choir, as well as members of the Oxford Bach Choir and the Oxford Philomusica.

“It’s worked out as a very good way for the two college choirs to combine, and also to have some connection with the city,” says Benjamin. “So hopefully while it’s a college celebratory event, it’s also a wider city and university project.”

An extra sprinkling of fairy dust comes in the form of a particularly starry line-up of soloists — including legendary mezzo Sarah Connolly singing the Guardian Angel. “She’s one of the greatest living exponents of that role, so there’s no better person we could have asked to do it,” Benjamin says. “I’ve worked with her before when I was conductor of Stroud Choral Society. She lives just outside Stroud and used to take a very active interest in the choir’s work, so it’s very exciting to be welcoming her here.”

Sarah will be joined by bass Benedict Nelson as the Priest and tenor Richard Edgar-Wilson in the title role.

The concert is just one of the highlights in a particularly exciting year for Merton College Choir. After Gerontius, their next major event is the annual Passiontide at Merton festival, which this year includes Bach’s St Matthew Passion, with soprano Emma Kirkby among the soloists. A concert tour to America follows, then another special festival to mark the opening of the college’s new Dobson organ.

“The organ was commissioned four years ago so that it would be finished in time for this year,” explains Benjamin. “It is one of the few American organs in this country, and the first by this firm to be built outside America, so a special twist, really.”

Another concert on May 9 features Duruflé’s Requiem, as well as music from the Merton Choir-book, a collection of new commissions for the 750th anniversary.

Benjamin is particularly excited about The Dream of Gerontius, though — especially as it takes him back to his childhood days as a chorister at Norwich Cathedral. “I first sang in a performance of The Dream of Gerontius when I was 10!” he laughs. “So I’ve known it for a long time and I’m very excited to be doing it here for the Merton College anniversary.”

Elgar The Dream of Gerontius
Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford
Saturday, March 1, 7.30pm
Tickets: 01865 244806 or