Ex Cathedra Midummer Music review


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 characterful Baritone solo – sung and spoken!), the whimsical Cuckoo! by Benjamin Britten, sensitively delivered,, a moving love song (James MacMillan's The Gallant Weaver, Associate Conductor Hilary Campbell eliciting a spell-binding pianissimo for the slow moving chordal accompaniment over which a beautiful two-part melody was woven), and a couple of fine Gallic contributions: Le Jeune's jaunty Revecy venir du Printans, and Ravel's little gem Trois Chansons in which the singers playfully revelled in the French text of the outer two songs, whilst serenely delivering the more wistful middle one.

British works included Britten's Hymn to St Cecilia, the patron saint of music and musicians (oh how we need to summon a healthy dose of her spirit in these challenging times!), and a commission from Malvern-based Liz Dilnot Johnson, The Windover, which depicts a soaring falcon riding the thermals. Skidmore secured a convincing performance of this new work, fittingly in the English choral tradition but with interesting choral wind rustling effects and some memorable high voice writing which builds to a stirring vocal climax as the sun breaks over the horizon.

Penelope Thwaites' Saint Teresa's Bookmark was a perfect hymn-like miniature, and communicated with affecting but heartfelt simplicity here.

Throughout this varied programme, Ex Cathedra sang with their trademark unanimity of sound, despite the enforced social distancing on stage. Gershwin's Summertime, delivered with effortless nonchalance, proved to be a fitting encore.

Anthony Bradbury


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