By Christopher Morley


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 careers.


“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.


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