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Canon Marcus Huxley to conduct his last major event at Birmingham Cathedral

Canon Marcus Huxley is set to retire later this year after 30 years service as Director of Music at Birmingham Cathedral

The retirement of Canon Marcus Huxley, Director of Music at Birmingham Cathedral(Image: Handout)

Saturday’s performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion at Birmingham Cathedral will be the last major event directed by Canon Marcus Huxley, who retires later this year after 30 years service as Director of Music at this gorgeous baroque building situated at the highest point of Birmingham city centre.

Marcus tells me how those thirty years have panned out.

“ I inherited a Choir that was in a sort of embryonic state, as it had been more than decimated six months previously by the sudden departure of my predecessor and the simultaneous withdrawal of a substantial percentage of the boy choristers.

“An excellent interim job had been done by Charles Velu, the acting choirmaster, and the Precentor, Canon Lorys Davies, so that there were 20 boys in the stalls and an adequate number of men, but the boys were very inexperienced indeed. So at the start it was a steep learning curve for all of us.

“To get from that situation to a position where the Cathedral Choir is performing to a reliably high enough standard week in week out to be invited to sing live on BBC Radio 3 on a regular basis was my aim and has been achieved. Incidentally, these days live performances on Radio 3 are quite a rare bird, and, if one thinks about it too much, it’s potentially a huge extra pressure.

“In our last broadcast in October, there was a very demanding high treble solo at the end of Wesley’s lengthy anthem The Wilderness, which our then 12-year-old Head Chorister Matthew Anderson brought off with great aplomb. At the same time, I have had to work over many years with a severely restricted budget and of course without a dedicated choir school.”

In 1992 Rosemary Field, at that time the only female assistant organist in an English cathedral, formed a girls’ choir, one of the very first.

“Within a short time, they were making very impressive music, and it was clear they would be a huge additional asset to our music department,” Marcus remembers. “When Rosemary left at the end of 1994, I integrated the girls into the main Cathedral Choir, though to this day the three sections – men, boys and girls - remain separate and are deployed in all possible combinations, which both gives variety and flexibility to our music programme and is immensely beneficial in sharing the load at busy times of year such as Christmas and Easter.”

And the Birmingham Cathedral choristers do not only sing within the ecclesiastical confines, but have also reached out into the professional theatre, as Marcus explains..

“When these opportunities come along it makes for an interesting challenge, and making music together is one of the happiest experiences on earth. Singing with the ballet has taken us to some amazing venues such as the Sadlers Wells Theatre and the Alhambra Palace in Spain, while taking part in Scrooge had us both treading the boards of the Alexandra Theatre and recording in the Abbey Road Studios next to the famous pedestrian crossing. Then there were the visits to the Central TV Studios for Bullseye with Jim Bowen and Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club on Broad St. We have also performed in some fabulous ecclesiastical buildings such as St Paul’s Cathedral, Notre Dame in Paris, Chartres Cathedral, St Thomas’s Leipzig, etc etc.”

Birmingham Cathedral forms one part of a rewarding artistic triangle with the Catholic St Chad’s Cathedral and City Organist Thomas Trotter. Marcus pays tribute to his two colleagues.

“David Saint at St Chad’s is both a magnificent musician and a great person to work with. In the case of Thomas Trotter at the Town Hall and later at Symphony Hall, Birmingham is so lucky to have this world-class musician performing regularly throughout the year. He invited us to sing a Christmas concert with him in 1990. He then generously came to the cathedral to help us celebrate the re-building of our organ in 1993 and a few years later, with the extensive re-building of the Town Hall, he needed a venue for his weekly recitals, which we were honoured to provide – never thinking the arrangement would last for eleven years.”

As we focus upon the forthcoming St Matthew Passion, Marcus tells me how the performance will combine forces from both cathedrals..

“St Chad’s and St Philip’s have for a number of years performed together in Passiontide. What better time to put religious differences aside and come together as a united Christian church? This year, fortuitously, Easter is very late and I thought - now or never - I would go for the big one. I conducted it many years ago in Yorkshire and it is my favourite.

“Why in English? Bach composed in the language of his listeners so that the Gospel story would be understood directly. We are lucky to have some of the finest orchestral musicians from the Midlands and beyond organised by Philip Head as the double orchestra required.”

Marcus tells me about the legacy that the young singers in the various Cathedral choirs take away with them.

“Musical skill and knowledge, (we teach all choristers music theory), ability to sing at sight. I often introduce new repertoire. Confidence in performing in public. Familiarity with the wonderful English prose of the Book of Common Prayer. The privilege of regularly spending part of your life in a handsome historic building. Some knowledge of Latin. Elocution when chanting the psalms. Familiarity from the inside with some of the greatest music in the western canon – Gregorian chant, Josquin, Palestrina, Byrd, Gibbons, Purcell, Handel, Bach, etc etc. Lifetime friendships. Ability to concentrate. Ability to work efficiently alongside professional adults, achieving a lot in limited rehearsal time. It can lead on to a musical career – Matt Perry, timpanist of the RPO, Philip Dukes, viola, David Briggs, organist, Christian Halstead, violin, Rob Jenkins and Rob Anthony Gardiner, singers, Tanya Houghton, harp. In itself the enormous satisfaction of regularly singing a huge variety of music to a very high standard. The satisfaction of artistic creation through working together as a team.”

And we end by discussing Marcus’ home life and our mutual passion for cricket.

“Home is Hall Green. I’m exceptionally lucky to have been married for 34 years to Sally, an amazing home-maker in the face of the almost insuperable challenges of living with untidy males, as well as being a teacher of Food Studies at King Edward’s High School and sometime author and general support.

“Family life has to fit round a cathedral musician’s unusual schedule more than many occupations. We have two adult sons, one who works for the BBC at Media City in Salford, while the other is involved in local politics here in Birmingham. In cricket I am an expensive bowler of leg-breaks, who is understandably rarely invited to perform, and therefore tend to major on my batting. I did hit a six against the CBSO a few years ago…”

* Marcus Huxley conducts Bach’s St Matthew Passion at Birmingham Cathedral on Saturday April 1 (5pm).

Upcoming Concerts

* Thursday March 30: The Birmingham Conservatoire Baroque Orchestra plays a delicious programme of Rameau, Telemann, Mozart, Purcell and Handel, in the perfect setting of Birmingham Cathedral (7.30pm)

* Saturday April 1: The Halesowen Orchestra plays Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade and Dvorak's New World Symphony in the town's Cornbow Hall (7.30pm).

* Sunday April 2: Richard Laing conducts the Chandos Symphony Orchestra in a programme of Stravinsky, Nino Rota (the Bassoon Concerto) and Tchaikovsky (Forum Theatre, Malvern 7.30pm).

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