Ex Cathedra preview


by Christopher Morley

"Yes, 50 years!" gasps Jeffrey Skidmore almost incredulously as we sit down for our annual lunch at Cielo in Birmingham's Brindley Place.
We're there to talk about the forthcoming season of Ex Cathedra, the chamber choir Jeffrey founded half-a-century ago (coinciding with my own debut as music critic for the Birmingham Post), and a choir whose reputation has grown worldwide from its original Lichfield and Birmingham bases.
Jeffrey has never had any ambitions to move away from his vibrant creation. "I'm happy to have been in one place," he says, "like the composers Lassus, Monteverdi, De Lalande, Bach, Juan de Aranjo in Sucre, Bolivia, and John Joubert here in Birmingham!"
The Bolivian reference is pertinent, as Jeffrey has done so much work researching the church music of baroque composers in South America, music which combines the rigours of Old World traditions with the colourful textures of the New, "from mission stations to cathedrals," as he points out.
After 50 years we naturally need to consider the succession to Jeffrey Skidmore once he steps down as music director of Ex Cathedra, and Jeffrey explains the process of selection which is currently happening.
"Our testing-out of student conductors is proving a huge success. The idea is to have a five-team project, each one working with the choir for five months. One will be appointed assistant music director, and then successor to me in 2021, which will mark my 70th birthday.
"We've had 40 applicants, all of very high quality."
In addition to performing, Ex Cathedra is highly involved in academic work, which will include hosting the International Biennial Conference of Baroque Music at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire in July 2020.
"Research is such an important part of what we do," says Jeffrey, "and we're taking on board three RBC postgraduate students."
But in addition to delving into musical history, Ex Cathedra is renowned for exploring the new, with its latest forthcoming release bringing the music of Penny Thwaites, recorded on the SOMM label in the magnificent Bramall music building at the University of Birmingham.
And Jeffrey comes up with an amazing Guinness Book of Records pub-quiz fact: "Ex Cathedra has performed Carl Orff's Carmina Burana more than any other choir in the world, thanks to our involvement with David Bintley's production for Birmingham Royal Ballet -- often coupled with John Joubert's South of the Line.."
For a near 70-year-old Jeffrey's enthusiasm is boundless. "We are at the top of any genre! There are things I want to say, things I want to do.
"You can see why I feel 21, even though I don't look it!" But I'm sure the eternally youthful Jeffrey Skidmore has an ageing portrait of himself in the attic.
Highlights of the season upon us include the evocative Rachmaninov Vespers at Birmingham Town Hall on Sunday October 27 (4pm), Bach's B minor Mass (one of the few creations of humankind which we can humbly but proudly present at the Pearly Gates) on Sunday December 1 at the Town Hall (4pm), and most spectacularly, Beethoven's mighty Missa Solemnis.
For this amazing work, of which Beethoven said that it came "from the heart, may it go to the heart", Ex Cathedra and Jeffrey Skidmore are joined by the CBSO and soloists who have graduated from the ranks of the choir to glittering international careers, including soprano Carolyn Sampson, tenor Andrew Tortise and bass Roderick Williams (Sunday January 26, Symphony Hall, 4pm).
And plans are afoot for future seasons, including the premiere of "When a child is a witness" by Malvern-based Liz Johnson, to be given at Coventry Cathedral in 2021. This is a work dealing with the experiences of refugees. "It's a concept on a par with Benjamin Britten's War Requiem, premiered here in the Cathedral in 1962," declares Jeffrey.
There are also stirrings about Ex Cathedra's involvement when the Commonwealth Games descend upon Birmingham in 2022.
So, the succession after Jeffrey Skidmore steps down from the podium of Ex Cathedra, the choir he created in 1969, is well in train.
"Yes, I'm beginning the process of winding down," he admits." And there are so many of us coming towards the end of our careers: Harry Christophers, William Christie, John Eliot Gardiner...
"The world will end!"
*All details of forthcoming Ex Cathedra concerts on www.excathedra.co.uk, or 0121-780 3333.

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