Thursday 22nd December 2022
St. Paul’s Church, Birmingham ****
Fully freed from the unwelcome restrictions of Covid protocols, the 2022 edition of Ex Cathedra’s annual ‘Christmas Music by Candlelight’ concert series saw a welcome return to the fully immersive aural experience that is its hallmark, opening with a moving rendition of ‘This is the truth’ by Ralph Vaughan Williams sung from the two side aisles, with baritone solo and conductor in the chancel and nave respectively.
Vaughan Williams’ 150th birthday was just one of multiple current and upcoming anniversaries recognised in this year’s programme – a meditative ‘Ave Maria’ by Anton Bruckner (200th birthday in 2023) had suitably pleading cries of “Sancta Maria”, whilst the ‘Lullaby, my sweet little baby’ of William Byrd (2023 will be the 400th anniversary of this great English composer’s death) was given a tender reading by the choristers.
However, Ex Cathedra is also a champion of contemporary music, hence the inclusion of new works by composers who have a close connection with the choir. These included young Christopher Churcher’s ‘Before the ice is in the pools,’ based on Emily Dickinson’s poem, the spirit of Christmas captured in quiet reverie by the singers through its rich harmonies. In contrast, Liz Dilnot Johnson’s ‘A wild midwinter carol’ had a pleasingly rustic folksong vibe, with its hand chimes and bells evoking a frosty bucolic landscape. Also included was Alec Roth’s mesmerising introit ‘Unborn’ for tenor solo and choir, moving like a slow camel train to the beat of its processional drum.
Other concert highlights included Eriks Esenvalds’ ‘Long road’ with its soaring top line over thickly scored chords, the divided choirs moving to face each other, and James MacMillan’s ‘And lo, the angel of the Lord’ with its appropriately Angelic contributions from the two galleries – the very embodiment of ‘surround sound’, and undoubtedly Heavenly in every sense.
A special mention must also be made of Martin Bates, Ex Cathedra’s accompanist for more than 20 years, who sadly died earlier this year. His ‘Three Songs for Christmas’ are imaginatively written, with no shortage of technical challenges for the choir: the opening song ‘He comes in the night’ showcased some fine diction, whilst the closing number ‘With a merry ding dong!’, with its little musical missteps shepherded so ably by conductor Jeffrey Skidmore, was simply joyous.