SKIDMORE AND EX CATHEDRA
Celebrating Christmas has always been a major
fixture in Ex Cathedra’s performing calendar, and this year is no exception.
The chamber choir’s renowned “Christmas by
Candlelight” concerts were launched in St Francis’ Church, Bournville in 1970, a
year after the ensemble’s founding, and moved to St Paul’s, in Birmingham’s
Jewellery Quarter, the next year. Jeffrey Skidmore, Ex Cathedra’s founder and
conductor, tells me how “one concert became two, then three, and now five. Later
we expanded to concerts throughout the region, and now in London, in Trafalgar
Square’s St Martin in the Fields.”
Jeffrey is busy thinking about “Candlelight” all
year long. “I am constantly, throughout the year, looking for new works and new
composers, I listen to other musicians’ recommendations and a have a pile
of music sent to me over the years that I visit every now and then.”
This Christmas Ex Cathedra adds another string to
its bow, giving the annual Symphony Hall performance of Handel’s Messiah which
has long been the province of much larger choral societies.
“There are obvious differences - period
instruments, smaller forces - but it’s EC’s infra-structure of students,
amateurs and professional singers that creates the sound, the precision and the
freshness associated with the group,” says Jeffrey .
“Having a company of very special professional
singers who are not only choristers and consort singers but also skilled
soloists who have grown up with Ex Cathedra, this produces the all-important
stylistic consistency. There is a team of twelve soloists for Messiah and
they all sing regularly with the group and know me and the group.”
And this hints at the ethos of Ex Cathedra, as
Jeffrey explains when he takes me back to the time over half a century ago when
he founded the ensemble.
“It was formed in 1969. I was at school in
Bournville, had been a chorister at St Francis’ Church (with Wally Jennings)
and sang as an alto Lay Clerk at Birmingham Cathedral with Roy Massey. Ex
Cathedra brought these three elements (school, church and professional)
together to sing music I loved and which no-one else seemed to be doing in
Birmingham, particularly Renaissance and Medieval repertoire.
“I continued to develop Ex Cathedra from Oxford
(70-73) where I was an Academical Clerk at Magdalen with Bernard Rose and David
Wulstan (Clerkes of Oxenford), two giants of the burgeoning choral scene in the
70s, and I introduced Oxbridge singers to the Ex Cathedra mix.”
As someone who has reviewed the work of Ex Cathedra
almost since its founding I have always been struck by the way soloists in
whatever piece, even in something as mighty as Bach’s St Matthew Passion,
emerge from the choral ranks, returning into them after delivering their
contributions. Many of these have subsequently gained international stardom,
such as Carolyn Sampson, Roderick Williams and Nigel Short.
How much of the original philosophy behind the founding of Ex Cathedra is
still maintained today, and how have other things developed?
“I still perform music I love with musicians I like
and admire”, is Jeffrey’s smiling answer, as he continues.
“Much of Ex Cathedra’s repertoire is still music
relatively untouched by other ensembles - Latin American, French Baroque and
commissions from local composers, and often composers at the beginning of their
“I have always looked to develop local talent and
talent from around the country (our pros and travelling amateurs often comment
on this). Nurturing young talent has also been crucially important and
the recent Scholars Ensembles schemes are a massively important formalisation
of what’s been going on since the beginning.”
Now into his 70s, Jeffrey is planning for his
eventual retirement, and is making sure his beloved Ex Cathedra will be left in
a safe pair of hands, as he tells me.
“We’ve been nurturing five talented, young
associate conductors and are now asking for applications for the ‘job’ to widen
the net, but also including the associate conductors in the mix.”
But for now Jeffrey is still thinking very much in
the present. His next programme with Ex Cathedra is the first they are giving
in Royal Birmingham Conservatoire’s Bradshaw Hall, and is entitled “Byrd to
Bacharach and Bach”. He describes it as it moves towards its conclusion.
“As a small tribute to the great song
writer Burt Bacharach who died earlier this year I have arranged Anyone who
had a heart, one of his many great hits and a number one for Cilla Black in
1963. It is followed by a ‘Swingle’ arrangement
of one of Bach’s most popular Chorale Preludes - Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring.”
The same mixture
of new and old bubbles along in this year’s Christmas Music by Candlelight
programme, and we are promised Summer Music by Candlelight, too, next June.
Before that, though, Ex Cathedra’s season reaches its climax in Symphony Hall
with a Good Friday performance of Bach’s powerful St John Passion, 300 years
after its first hearing in Leipzig in 1724.
*All details on www.excathedra.co.uk