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Showing posts from 2021

The Great Journey at Three Choirs Festival

AMAIZNG COLIN MATTHEWS PERFORMANCE IN WORCESTER CATHEDRAL THE GREAT JOURNEY Worcester Cathedral ***** The three-centuries old Three Choirs Festival has long been lumbering along with the perceived need, vestiges of which still obtain, to bludgeon us with the great choral masterpieces, and not always in the greatest performances. Nothing of that, thank goodness, in Sunday's refreshing concert from the Goldfield Ensemble conducted by Adrian Partington. The absentees from a depressingly sparse audience will regret what they missed. Partington is no old-school organist descending from the organ-loft to flail about on the podium. He is a most meticulous, forensic conductor, his finger-twitching imperious hands imparting his dissections of the score to the performers in the manner of the austere but so magisterial Pierre Boulez (Boulez gets a mention at the Three Choirs!). Partington's probing skills really came into their own in the movingly triumphant account of Coli

Latest CD reviews: Prokofiev, Poulenc, Durufle

NORMAN STINCHCOMBE ENTHUSES OVER NEW PROKOKIEV, POULENC AND DURUFLE RELEASES PROKOFIEV BY ARRANGEMENT: Kalnits & Chaplina ★★★★ Prokofiev always had the knack of writing a catchy tune, even before Stalin's cultural commissars made it compulsory. Here Yuri Kalnits (violin) and Yulia Chaplina (piano) perform arrangements of thirty-seven of his miniature melodies which range from an energetic little tarantella composed when he was ten-years-old to the luscious Diamond Waltz from his ballet The Stone Flower which he was still working on at his death in 1953. At the heart of the disc is Visions Fugitives, a twenty-movement suite from 1915-17. Looking back on it in 1950 Prokofiev said that he wanted to combine the lyric, jocose and motoric elements of his style with some slightly daring harmonies. Originally for piano Viktor Derevianko's 1980 transcription works a treat while Kalnits and Chaplina capture all its diverse elements. Famous fiddlers' transcriptions are her

Sinfonia of Birmingham excels in Warwick

A STUNNING SINFONIA CONCERT IN SUN-BATHED ST MARY'S, WARWICK SINFONIA OF BIRMINGHAM St Mary's Church, Warwick **** Glorious evening sunshine glinting through the windows onto mellow ancient stonework is one thing, but its direct shining into the eyes of some of the orchestra members was undoubtedly quite a challenge – but one to which the players rose heroically (no doubt inspired by the symphony under performance, Beethoven's Eroica). This was the final offering in a concert from the excellent Sinfonia of Birmingham, the final offering in what has been a remarkably successful Warwick and Leamington Midsummer Music Festival. Orchestral tone was rich in this soaring acoustic, the building's very spaciousness perhaps the cause of the few examples of imprecise ensemble, conductor Michael Seal secured a wide range of dynamics (some remarkable pianissimi) and articulation throughout this perforcedly short evening, and had obviously rehearsed so meticulous

COSI FAN TUTTE. Longborough Festival Opera **** (July 4)

Or “Women are Human” in this radical approach to Mozart’s notorious opera of fiancee-swapping and Age of the Enlightenment cynicism. Some might take a bit of convincing in accepting the parameters of this decidedly controversial production, but I can assure them that, but for a few flaws, it works very much of the time. Longborough has long been ahead of the game, and in its two-fingered approach to all the pandemic strictures it built a big top of a performing arena, an acoustic baffle above, and arranging socially-distanced audience seats (admittedly not very comfortable) around a circular stage. And this presentation went one step further, making a virtue of the necessity of social distancing for the performers by having them hold and sing to classically-sculpted heads for their most emotional moments. But that was just one brilliant touch in director Sam Browne’s novel take upon this normally set-in-stone masterpiece. It took us quite a time to get our heads round what were scarcel

COULL QUARTET Holy Trinity Church, Leamington

                                                  COULL QUARTET                                         Holy Trinity Church, Leamington Richard Phillips and Leamington Music have achieved epic triumphs in bringing live music back into our lives, and the miraculous existence of the Warwick and Leamington Midsummer Festival, running at various locations in the two towns for well over a fortnight, is a tribute to the team’s enterprise and tenacity. A highlight event here were the two concerts delivered by the popular, long-time local Coull Quartet on the evening of July 1, the second of which featured the String Quartet no.10 by Robert Simpson, Leamington-born, and with this year marking his centenary. This substantial three-movement work was composed for the Coull’s tenth anniversary, and dedicated to them “in friendship”. It bears the subtitle “For Peace”, and indeed much of the piece is slow-moving, never quite serene, and ultimately consolatory in acceptance, gracefully luminous as it

CBSO and Julian Anderson premiere

CHRISTOPHER MORLEY REVIEWS AN ABSOLUTELY AMAZING CBSO CONCERT CBSO Symphony Hall ***** Gradually music's coming home, and the CBSO is playing a huge part in restoring our musical experience to near-"normal". With the assistance and co-operation of Symphony Hall (a venue now revealing further versatilities) it has been treating us to concerts performed by a full-size symphony orchestra -- no worthy, well-meaning reductions here. Recorded by BBC Radio 3 for broadcast two days later, the programme on Wednesday June 30 was an absolute joy, bringing a gem of a UK premiere and a richly satisfying account of a great Dvorak symphony under the baton of a conductor with whom I think everyone on both sides of the footlights has fallen in love. The premiere was a co-commission from the CBSO originally designed as one of the many premieres celebrating its centenary last year, and this was a celebration of a different sort, marking the rebirth of live music to an enthusiast

CBSO/Mirga Weinberg, Mahler review

WEINBERG DISSECTED CBSO Symphony Hall **** After the disappointment of last week's concert having to be Covid-cancelled it was good to return to the CBSO, and to welcome back principal conductor Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla for a Mahler sandwich, his Ruckert-Lieder tucked between two slices of Weinberg. Mirga and the CBSO have made something of a speciality of Mieczyslaw Weinberg in recent years, revealing his music to the British public, and winning a Gramophone "Record of the Year" accolade in the process. They began here with his Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes, written with a view to pacifying the populist diktats of Stalin's policies towards the arts, and immediately attractive in its vivid use of folk-material. The CBSO have done wonders in accommodating a socially-distanced full orchestra on the versatile, capacious Symphony Hall stage, and it was just so good to hear a full complement of low strings digging darkly into the music's opening (for all

Sibelius, Mozart and James Joyce CDs reviewed

SIBELIUS, MOZART AND JAMES JOYCE CDs REVIEWED BY NORMAN STINCHCOMBE SIBELIUS: Davidsen / Bergen Philharmonic / Gardner ★★★★★ Opera's shooting star Lise Davidsen gives a stupendous performance of Sibelius's Luonnotar. For sheer beauty Söderström and Isokoski excel the Norwegian soprano but Davidsen turns this orchestral song into a miniature opera, inhabiting the mythical sky-maiden who helps to nurture the world into existence. Soaring, desolate and exultant by turn, moods realized in burnished tone. Edward Gardner unleashes his impressive Bergen players knowing that Davidsen can ride the waves of sound. Wow. It's a hard act to follow but Gardner almost succeeds in Sibelius's final tone-poemTapiola, depicting the deity of the forest, giving us every musical and emotional transformation of the theme with lashings of detail and no skimping. It's impressive, but Karajan's magisterial '60s Berlin recording captures the trees and the wood. In the Pelléa

Playground Opera's Hansel and Gretel review

A JOYOUS, LIFE-ENHANCING MINI HANSEL AND GRETEL HANSEL AND GRETEL Longborough Festival Playground Opera ***** There can be no more joyous and artistic and educational experience than the one I was privileged to share in at Stratford's Welcombe Hills School on Wednesday. As part of the educational outreach of the internationally-renowned Longborough Festival Opera this modified version of Humperdinck's glorious opera has been designed to tour various school playgrounds around the Cotswold counties, performing to over 1200 children. I caught up with it at this wonderfully welcoming school for primary and secondary school pupils with special needs on a glorious summer morning, and left afterwards feeling my life had been enhanced. The children, coming to the show after participatory workshops, sat there glued, entranced, responsive , participating, and joyously cheering the seeing-off of the wicked witch. I will never forget the immediate

Longborough Walkure review

AN AMAZING WALKURE FROM LONGBOROUGH DIE WALKURE Longborough Festival Opera ***** Longborough Festival Opera's legendary reputation in brilliant productions of Wagner operas took on another accolade with this year's amazingly resourceful staging of Die Walkure. Or rather, semi-staging, which made such a virtue out of Covid restrictions. To a meticulously socially-distanced audience the performance area presented a whole new vista, with the strings of the Longborough Festival Opera Orchestra arrayed across the stage, the woodwind, brass and percussion tucked underneath in the auditorium's famous pit. And the sound this perforcedly scale-down complement of the wonderful band orchestral manager Philip Head has created over the years was thrilling under Anthony Negus. Sound was bright and forward, detail was telling, and we had the impression of chamber music unfolding (very much a la Siegfried Idyll), and revealing much wonderfu

Ex Cathedra Midummer Music review

ANTHONY BRADBURY RELISHES EX CATHEDRA'S MIDSUMMER MUSIC BY CANDLELIGHT EX CATHEDRA Symphony Hall **** I wonder how many other concerts you'll hear this year will take you on a choral journey from 6th century plainchant, to the 1960s pop charts (an arrangement of Cliff Richard's Summer Holiday, complete with 'repeat & fade' ending), via a new commission? Such is the imaginative programming of Ex Cathedra's Artistic Director & Conductor, Jeffrey Skidmore, whose selection of summer-themed music and readings was appropriately book-ended by the Hymnus Eucharisticus, traditionally sung from Oxford's Magdalen College Tower at sunrise on May Morning, and Night Prayer by Alec Roth which brought the concert to a suitably meditative close. In between, we were treated to a veritable cornucopia of choral music spanning 15 centuries. We had the familiar (the early polyphonic round Sumer is icumen in, and the popular French song La Mer, complete with a

Romantic Violin Sonatas and Multi-piano Mozart CD reviews

ROMANTIC VIOLIN SONATAS AND MULTI-PIANO MOZART CD REVIEWS ROMANTIC VIOLIN SONATAS: Carlock-Combet Duo ★★★ Schubert's Sonata for Violin and Piano in A (D574) never reaches the heights of his greatest chamber works but its four-movements are affable, easy-going and cosy – what the German's call "gemütlich". Guillaume Combet's warm and generous vibrato and Sandra Carlock's laid-back unobtrusive piano style fit the work perfectly. Schumann's chamber works, the famous piano quintet excepted, have as many thorns as flowers. The Duo's energy and brio in the finale of his Sonata No.2 in D minor is commendable but elsewhere there are acerbities, oddities and shadows that go unexplored. Listen to Kremer and Argerich's probing performance to hear what I mean. Grieg's Violin Sonata No. 3 in C minor, his last chamber work, has some dull thematic material but the Carlock-Combet Duo make the most of its whole-hearted romanticism and they ensure that its

CBSO Britten, Arnold review

RICHARD BRATBY ENTHUSES OVER CBSO'S BRITTEN AND ARNOLD CBSO Symphony Hall **** One of the enjoyable details of the CBSO's sadly-mauled Centenary season has been its sense of heritage – of revisiting, and reclaiming, music with which the orchestra has a historic connection. Sir Malcolm Arnold recorded his Fifth Symphony with the CBSO in 1973. The symphony, at that point, was twelve years old, while the CBSO was starting to show the benefits of Louis Frémaux's energetic orchestra-building. But while any recording of a major work by its composer has a historic value, I doubt either Frémaux or Arnold would have quite believed the quality of the playing or the conviction of the interpretation that the symphony received under Michael Seal this afternoon. The CBSO was playing in its socially-distanced configuration, with a slightly reduced string section: still, as with all the concerts so far in this short post-lockdown summer season, it's clear that

Two new chamber releases reviewed by Norman Stinchcombe

NORMAN STINCHCOMBE ENTHUSES OVER TWO NEW CHAMBER RELEASES AMERICAN QUINTETS: Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective ★★★★ American composer Florence Beatrice Price's life is perfect movie material. Of mixed race and born in bigoted Arkansas in 1887 Florence fought bigotry to get a musical education – even pretending to be a Mexican to avoid prejudice against her African heritage. She was indefatigable: her E minor Symphony was premiered in 1933 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The Quintet in A minor for piano and strings featured here was written at about the same time, its conventional late romanticism enlivened by incorporating stomping Juba slave-dance rhythms in its lively third movement. Amy Beach's music is better known and her F sharp minor Quintet has been recorded several times but this is the finest, the KCC giving its full Brahmsian textures weight without stodginess. Sample the passionate adagio espressivo. Samuel Barber's deeply felt setting of Matthew Arnold

CBSO review 2.6.21

PAUL LEWIS SPARKLES ON A SOMETIMES DREARY AFTERNOON CBSO Symphony Hall **** The latest in the CBSO's unlocked-down series of concerts was very much in the meat and two veg tradition, overture, concerto and symphony. The only innovation was the absence of the interval, something which must surely be on the table for discussion. Now that there are no longer overnight reviews, I am sure most critics would welcome an earlier end to concerts; against that we have to balance the venue's loss of catering takings. Blissfully there is no room for encores, either. Conducting was someone new to me, the young French conductor Chloe van Soeterstede, very much in the elfin mode in which Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla first presented herself to us, and with an equal outpouring of enthusiasm. Yet her account of Mozart's Don Giovanni Overture, though it zipped along, was lacking in dynamic shading, Chloe (may I? -- like Mirga, she shares a weighty surname), relying instead upon Moza

CBSO MAY 26 REVIEW

LISTENER-FRIENDLY CBSO PROGRAMME CBSO Symphony Hall **** Anyone who proudly dec;lares "I don't listen to twentieth-century music" is a fool to himself, missing out on all but one of Elgar's greatest works, most of Puccini, a good deal of Richard Strauss, Debussy and Ravel. My list could go on into the far-off distance, but it would certainly include the three works the CBSO imaginatively bundled together in its latest pair of Wednesday concerts. Not only did they all originate in the first half of that apparently problematic century, their inclusion also built up the personnel of the orchestra in steps towards its massive conclusion in the Fifth Symphony of Shostakovich. Conductor Nicholas Collon spoke of this remarkable achievement, putting "this huge piece" onto this Covid-restricted stage, before launching into an account of Stravinsky's Symphonies of Wind Instruments. Balance, detail and ensemble fr

Strauss and Julian Lloyd Webber CD reviews

NORMAN STINCHCOMBE ENTHUSES OVER NEW STRAUSS AND JULIAN LLOYD WEBBER RELEASES STRAUSS: Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia / Sir Antonio Pappano ★★★★ Pappano prioritizes the thematic over the programmatic in this recording of Richard Strauss's musical self-portrait Ein Heldenleben. The structure of recurring themes and their symphony-like skein is apparent, making it seem less a series of dazzling and thrilling set-pieces. The latter are still there but never in bold primary colours or heavily underlined. With Pappano's slightly cooler approach, emphasising sheer beauty of sound over orchestral clout, it's not surprising that Strauss's intimate musical portrait of his marriage, a long operatic scena without words, is particularly successful. For those wanting a higher octane approach – with a monumental battle scene – Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic are nonpareil with Decca's spectacular Sofiensaal sound eclipsing Pappano's live rec

CBSO opening concert at refurbished Symphony Hall

TRIUMPHANT RETURN OF CBSO TO REVAMPED SYMPHONY HALL CBSO Symphony Hall It was like going back 30 years to Symphony Hall's entry into the world. Much of the excitement we felt on that heady night was relived when one of the world's greatest performance venues opened its doors to a live audience for the first time in many months. And what doors they were, portals into a newly-refurbished foyer and bar (with cosy booths running down the side), revealing stunning vistas of Centenary Square, and accommodating new spaces on three floors providing additional performance areas. "We hope that there will be at least one performance a day from September onwards", a genial steward proudly told me. But chief cause for excitement on this sunny spring afternoon was the opening concert of an extended series from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, mouthwatering programmes delivered twice (early afternoon and early evening) every Wednesday until the beginnin

Beethoven, vaughan Williams and others reviewed on CD

CD REVIEWS OF BEETHOVEN, VAUGHAN WILLIAMS AND OTHERS BEETHOVEN MISSA SOLEMNIS: Freiburger Barockorchester / Jacobs ★★★ Since converting from counter-tenor to conductor Renè Jacobs has always courted controversy. His recordings can be refreshing, insightful, idiosyncratic and annoyingly wilful – usually a mixture of all these attributes. This original-instrument performance is brisk (72 minutes), bright and devoid of any old-style (i.e. mid twentieth century) gestures hinting at grandeur or gravity. Beethoven's great theistic-humanist musical mansion has been thoroughly de-cluttered. The excellent orchestra's playing is pin-sharp and the hard-stick timpani rattle menacingly if occasionally excessively. The vocal quartet Polina Pastirchak (soprano) Sophia Harmsen (mezzo) Steve Davislim (tenor) Johannes Weisser (bass) are first rate and Jacobs balances the orchestra so that they are seldom strained. If you enjoy the Gardiner-style slimmed down approach there's much t

A long, thoughtful review of Confessions of a Music Critic

http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2021/Apr/Morley-confessions-Brewin.htm An entertaining book, but it's something of a missed opportunity. Support MusicWeb-International financially by purchasing this from Amazon or Presto Classical Confessions of a Music Critic By Christopher Morley 148 pages, including index. With colour and black & white illustrations ISBN: 978-1-85858-726-4 First published 2021 Retail price £11.95 Paperback Brewin Books When I was growing up in Yorkshire in the 1960s and 1970s, critics employed by regional and local papers regularly reviewed concerts, both amateur and professional. Ernest Bradbury reigned at the Yorkshire Post while, at the local level, correspondents such as Malcom Cruise provided almost daily reviews in the Huddersfield Examiner. These men, and countless other journalists throughout the UK, provided an invaluable service. They gave their readers informed commentary and appraisal of

Christopher Morley's "Confessions" reviewed by Richard Bratby

CONFESSIONS OF A MUSIC CRITIC reviewed by Richard Bratby At every meeting of the Critics' Circle Music Section – when the nation's music scribblers gather behind an unmarked door in the West End to drink weak coffee and grumble about fees – there's a ritual. The Chair opens the meeting, moves to the first item on the agenda, and someone pipes up: "Apologies have been received from Christopher Morley". The old guard chuckles, and the newer members have it quietly explained to them that Mr Morley has never attended, and never will – until the Section agrees, even once in a decade, to hold a meeting somewhere other than London. So far, it never has. So far, Christopher has never attended. The secretary makes a note and the meeting moves on. For the Chief Music Critic of the Birmingham Post, it's a matter of principle. Some might call it quixotic. I call it magnificent, even while I hop

New CD reviews: Beethoven, Orchestra of the Swan Timelapse abd English Symphony Orchestra Visions of Childhood

NORMAN STINCHCOMBE LOVES A NEW "PERIOD" PERFORMANCE OF THE BEETHOVEN TRIPLE CONCERTO, NOT SO SURE ABOUT RELEASES FROM ORCHESTRA OF THE SWAN AND ENGLISH SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA BEETHOVEN: Faust, Queyras, Melnikov / Freiburger Barockorchester / Heras-Casado ★★★★★ Beethoven's Triple Concerto is the Cinderella of his concerto works, disparaged as lightweight and merely aiming to please. Jean-Guihen Queyras, the cellist on this new recording from Harmonia Mundi, dismisses this, adding "the beauty and depth of it is overwhelming. There are moments which are just absolutely breathtaking." Those qualities are evident in this fine new recording where he teams up with Isabelle Faust on violin and Alexander Melnikov – her chamber music partner – on keyboard. It's a performance full of fantasy and with a delightfully humorous concluding "Polish" rondo crackling with energy. They use original instruments which helps clarity and balance. Melnikov can really

Holy Week Bach review

A wonderful Holy Week Bach sequence reviewed by Christopher Morley PASSION AND PRECISION Lana Trotovsek and Tenebrae St John's, Smith Square, London From more than half a century of reviewing it would be difficult for me to recall anything more moving at this special time in the Christian church calendar than this Holy Week Festival presentation offered by St John's, Smith Square. The church ambience, subtly lit both by candles and soft lighting, allied to its perfect acoustic, provided a wonderful setting for this reflective Bach sequence, built around the movements of the D minor Partita for solo violin, interspersed by choral offerings of passion settings by the composer. In fact this was no choir, just an amazing vocal quartet from Tenebrae, pure of tone, easy in their phrasing, so alert to each other, and beautifully balanced. More of them later, when I come to the climax of this beautiful presentation. Lana Trotovsek was t

SIbelius Violin Concerto CD review

VIBRANT SIBELIUS VIOLIN CONCERTO FROM FENELLA HUMPHREYS SIBELIUS VIOLIN CONCERTO, HUMORESQUES Fenella Humphreys, BBC National Orchestra of Wales/George Vass (Resonus RES10277) For all its acknowledged stature, the Sibelius Violin Concerto is an elusive work, not always convincing in performance, with soloists overawed by its technical difficulties, conductors bogged down in the mud of Finnish forests. Not so here, in this vibrant recording from Fenella Humphreys, joined by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by George Vass. Humphreys has been a much-loved performer at Vass' Presteigne Festival for many years, and the trust and empathy between them are in abundance here in an account which takes our perceptions out of Scandinavia and out into the rest of Europe. Sibelius loved Italy, and Vass and his orchestra bring a sumptuous Mediterranean sound at times (think Walton Cello Concerto) to complement the Nordic chill elsewhere. And Humphreys is almost ope

Bartok, SImpson, Beethoven and Rachmaninov CD reviews by Norman Stinchcombe

LATEST CD REVIEWS FROM NORMAN STINCHCOMBE: BARTOK, SIMPSON, BEETHOVEN, RACHMANINOFF BARTOK: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Dausgaard ★★★★ The second volume in Onyx's series of Bartok's orchestral works brings us a bustling, bristling and blazing account of his ballet score The Miraculous Mandarin. Under conductor Thomas Dausgaard the orchestra tear into this fiercely imagined and grisly work with all the ferocity it demands. Censored when it appeared in the 1920s for its plot involving prostitution and murder it's often played in the suite Bartok devised to rescue it from obscurity. Dausgaard gives us the complete score plus thirty extra bars rescued by the composer's son Peter for the revised twenty-first century score – although you'll need one to notice the additions. Seedy the plot may be but not the music with Dausgaard conjuring up the weird sonorities for the Mandarin's resuscitation and pawky humour for the seductress's rejected clients. T

Hellensmusic review

A HEARTENING ONLINE CONCERT FROM HELLENSMUSIC HELLENSMUSIC Hellens, Much Marcle **** In recent years this haunted 1000-year-old manor house has become a much-visited venue for chamber concerts, but lockdown ended all that. Now, in its first appearance since then, Hellens has presented itself online. to much success. Adam Munthe, its genial owner, welcomed us hospitably, and astute camera-work focussed subsequently not only on the dexterity and personal expressions of the performers, but also on a few of the glories of the house itself. We were also let into the barn, where all Hellens live performances take place, and where here pianist Christian Blackshaw gave touching accounts of Mozart and Schubert, the latter's G-flat Impromptu warm and inward, textures beautifully balanced (though the online sound did the piano tone no favours). Blackshaw's Mozart D minor Fantasia was a tad controversial. This was beautifully articulated, and there was I (who know a bit

Latest CD reviews

SCHOENBERG, BACH AND VAUGHAN WILLIAMS CDs REVIEWED BY NORMAN STINCHCOMBE VERKLÄRTE NACHT : Skelton / Rice / BBC Symphony Orchestra / Gardner ★★★★★ Schoenberg's early masterpiece is the focal point, but what makes this intriguing disc such a rich musical experience are the lesser known pieces. Schoenberg's string sextet Verklärte Nacht ("Transfigured Night") was composed in 1899 but the later version for string orchestra is used here. Based on a poem by Richard Dehmel – controversial sexual politics pioneer – it's the essence of fervid late romanticism and the orchestra, under Edward Gardner, give us a performance rich and febrile blooming in the expansive Chandos recording. Schoenberg never set Dehmel's words but Oskar Fried did (1901) with mezzo Christine Rice and tenor Stuart Skelton outstanding in music that depicts the couple moving from dark despair to radiant love. Skelton also excels as the delirious soldier in the expressionistic Fieber (Fever)

Jeffrey Skidmore's 70th birthday

POPULAR EX CATHEDRA CONDUCTOR TURNS 70 JEFFREY SKIDMORE'S 70TH BIRTHDAY by Christopher Morley Like Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray, Jeffrey Skidmore probably has in his attic a picture of himself which does all the ageing for him. See him downstairs and you would never believe this conductor of Ex Cathedra is about to turn 70. For all the worldwide success he has achieved with this chamber choir which was his brainchild Jeffrey remains remarkably modest and down to earth, with absolutely no "side" to him. Our Birmingham-based careers in music have developed side-by-side for over 50 years, and he tells me how his began, thanks to an inspirational teacher. "I went to Bournville School in Griffins Brook Lane, and the music teacher was Walter Jennings (who now lives with his wife Linda in Plas Gwyn, Elgar's old home in Hereford). "They were both music graduates of the University of Birmingham, and introduced me to the music scene in the city, in