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, including what was then the Birmingham Bach Society (not only Bach, but Britten, too, and the operas at the Barber Institute conducted by Professor Anthony Lewis. I discovered the CBSO for myself, and remember performances of Messiah, the Dream of Gerontius, St Matthew Passion. I was Second Witch in a school production of Dido and Aeneas when I was 11 or 12. What an incredible opera to put on in a new, all-boys technical school!
"Wally's lessons brought in all sorts: Orlando Gibbons, Palestrina, Bach's use of high trumpets (and comparing that with the Beatles in Penny Lane), the Swingle Singers, Jacques Loussier..."
The seeds had clearly been sown, and Jeffrey went on to gain a scholarship to read Music at Oxford University. He sang there with the Clerkes<SIC> of Oxenford under David Wulstan ("a Brummie," Jeffrey points out) and in the Magdalen College Chapel Choir ("as a pipsqueak alto") under the legendary Bernard Rose.

He also began conducting. "The first one was the medieval Mass by Guillaume de Machaut! Tony Sargent (later an arts administrator in Birmingham before moving on to Gateshead and then Toronto) conducted the Stravinsky Mass in the other half.

"I sang with the Contemporary Music Society -- a lot of Schoenberg and Webern, I remember -- and I formed the Oxford Consort of Voices, which included Emma Kirkby. And I met Janet, who was reading music at St Hilda's. We married in Magdalen College Chapel in 1974.

"I also played a lot of bar football, drank and ate too much, and became an expert punter!"

Jeffrey was to return to Oxford to give concerts in Magdalen Chapel and the historic Holywell Music Room with Ex Cathedra, and he goes on to tell me how the choir was formed.

"It evolved, beginning in school days with friends, the Oxford element added a lot, and then, post Oxford as a teacher. We started as an amateur choir, and introduced a freelance and professional element from the early1990s. The aim was always and still is to sing great music with friends - or people I like and admire.

"What was my day job during this period? Schoolboy, student, and eventually teacher at four comprehensives in the Midlands from 1974 to 1994."

I have attended and reviewed countless Ex Cathedra concerts over this half-century, almost all of them exemplary in their preparation, stagecraft, intonation, and the trust in using soloists emerging from within the choir itself. There has also been the thrill of Jeffrey Skidmore employing accompanying "period instrument" instrumentalists. The whole journey has been a joy for me on my side of the footlights, but how about Jeffrey's own highlights?

"Some standout performances include Bach, Lassus, Lalande, Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, and Stockhausen. Also my research in Paris into baroque French music and South America.into baroque church music there. Friendships, tours, travel, and seeing young talent develop."

Some of the examples of the young talent which developed under Jeffrey's caring tutelage, and which I witnessed flower, include soprano Carolyn Sampson, now such a hot property on the world stage, alto Nigel Short, and tenor Paul Agnew. There are too many others to leap easily into mind.

During his 50-year career Jeffrey, who was awarded an OBE in 2015 for services to choral music, has done a fair amount of guest conducting away from Ex Cathedra, remembering with particular affection "Three Messiahs with Irish Baroque, Bach in Denmark with Aalborg Symphony and Stockhausen in Amsterdam with Netherlands Chamber Choir.

"And all my fascinating trips to Curitiba in Brazil!"

Ex Cathedra had launched plans to prepare for Jeffrey's eventual retirement by engaging a sequence of assistant conductors. How will they progress when all this lockdown is over?

"We're still on number 3 (very good)," he explains, "and plan to continue with 4 and 5 after lockdown. The plan remains the same but delayed by a year."

It has become a tradition that Jeffrey Skidmore and I have a working lunch every year at his favourite Italian restaurant, Cielo in Brindley Place. It will be a great joy when we can revive the practice and I can give him a belated 70th birthday treat.

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