Ex Cathedra Candelight review


Tuesday 21st December 2021

St. Paul's Church, Birmingham ****

After a year's hiatus which necessitated a filmed event in an empty Symphony Hall in 2020, Ex Cathedra's 'Christmas Music by Candlelight' made a welcome return to the Midlands this month in front of an expectant – and grateful – live audience.

This immersive experience, starting with a candle-lit procession with tolling bell and whispered texts, lead into a comforting performance of Ruairi Edwards' 'All will be well' – surely the kind of reassurance we need in these uncertain times? Equally heartening was the German lullaby 'Still, still, still', its beauty lying in its simplicity, perfectly rendered by the Ex Cathedra tenors and basses.

Composers have been busy during lockdown, and this eclectic concert programme featured new works by no less than five local luminaries, highlights of which included an affecting performance of long-time composer-in-residence Alec Roth's 'A Shepherd's Carol', with its female soloists and semi-chorus from the balcony blending superbly with the main choir below, and two pieces by another composer-in-residence, Liz Dilnot Johnson: a confidently declaimed performance of 'Magi', as befitting of its subject, and 'For this babe' with its echoing, overlapping lines interspersed with compelling chordal sections.

Other contemporary works included convincing performances of MacMillan's 'And lo, the angel of the Lord', with angelic, high-lying choral contributions from both balconies negotiating complex shifting harmonies in this striking work for three choirs, and Kennedy's gently lilting 'A spotless rose', delivered with spot-on intonation and choral blend by the singers.

Although anchored primarily in Europe, tonight's musical selection also included some welcome Latin American flavour through items such as Zéspedes' 'Convidando esta la noche' – a Cuban dance complete with full bank of percussion – and a spirited rendition of Salazar's 'Salga el torillo hosquillo', the choir's precise diction retelling the story of the short life of a boy toreador.

Amidst the less familiar, some welcome items of core Christmas repertoire included Joubert's 'Torches', the Coventry Carol with beautifully duetted lines from its soloists, and a suitably fleet-of-foot 'Tomorrow shall be my dancing day' by John Gardner.

Versatility is at the heart of Ex Cathedra's offering, and Associate Conductor Quintin Beer fully met this brief by effortlessly threading together this multi-faceted programme, turning his hand to the claves for one of the Latin items and leading a chant in another.

Anthony Bradbury

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