Wednesday 20th December 2023



St. Paul’s Church, Birmingham ****


One of the most enjoyable aspects of Ex Cathedra’s annual ‘Christmas Music by Candlelight’ series is that the selection of music is so diverse: from the familiar (‘Away in a Manger’ - tick), to the less familiar, to the new – and, in the latter category, works by no fewer than six Midlands composers.


For one of these, Ex Cathedra’s composer-in-residence Liz Dilnot Johnson, three pieces were included. Here’s a composer that has such an understanding of the voice, writing with a directness and sincerity that’s immediately arresting, whether that be ‘Lighten Our Darkness’ (2023) and its clever blending of texts from the Book of Common Prayer with utterances in local dialects written by young asylum seekers living in Coventry; ‘Gentle Flame’ for double choir with its evocative use of fluttering consonants depicting a flickering flame; or the insistent questioning in ‘Generous Winter’ (a premiere) that takes as its inspiration Kate Raworth’s ‘Doughnut Economics’ (yes, I had to look that up too) which challenges the notion of traditional capitalism and promotes instead an alternative built on social justice and sustainability. So never let it be said that classical music lacks relevance for today’s world, as Dilnot Johnson’s three works testified, all of which were highly ‘on point’.


But that’s not to say that there weren’t many moments which struck a lighter note: the sheer joy of the ‘Sussex Carol’, Martin Bates’ catchy ‘With a merry ding-dong’ complete with ‘vocal pizzicato’ and uneven gait, and an arrangement of Bach’s ‘Jesu, joy of man’s desiring’ of which the Swingle Singers would have been proud!


Imaginative use was made of the performing space, whether that be the thrilling Angelic proclamations from soloists high up in the gallery in MacMillan’s ‘And lo, the angel of the Lord’, Eŝenvalds’ ravishingly beautiful ‘The Long Road’ with singers lined up in the central aisle which fully immersed the audience aurally, or the horseshoe configuration deployed for the closing Bach chorale ‘How shall I fitly meet Thee?’ which was not quite perhaps as uniform as I remember from last year.


Throughout this carefully curated programme, Ex Cathedra sang with a depth and richness of tone that was especially evident in the thickly scored chords of Jonathan Dove’s ‘Wellcome all wonders’, in the expansive night sky canvass depicted in Christopher Churcher’s ‘Evening Star’, and in young Fyfe Hutchins’ ‘O Emmanuel’ which featured some of the finest singing of the evening, expertly paced and shaped by Conductor Jeffrey Skidmore.


Anthony Bradbury

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