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Ex Cathedra's expedition to explore the New World

Ex Cathedra conductor Jeffrey Skidmore tells Christopher Morley about the Birmingham choir's journey to discover the baroque music of South America

EL021006SKIDMORE - 6. Jeffrey Skidmore, conductor for Ex Cathedra.

When Jeffrey Skidmore launched Ex Cathedra from its Lichfield base nearly half a century ago the choir’s remit was to explore chiefly renaissance and baroque music from this country and Europe. Times have changed.

Nowadays one of the extra strings to Ex Cathedra’s bow has been its interest in the baroque music of South America, as evidenced not only in live performance, but also on several commercial recordings. Jeffrey tells me how this involvement came about.

“I was aware of Mexican polyphony in the 1980s but it was not until the new Millennium, when I began to look at it more closely, that I realised there was a rich source of wonderful, high-quality but neglected music in the New World.”

Jeffrey then goes on to describe how he and Ex Cathedra began to dip their toes in the water.

“The first concert was New World Symphonies in 2000, based on research in the British Library and contact with the octogenarian ‘pioneer’ Robert M. Stevenson at University College of Los Angeles, and some work at Harvard. Our first recording followed.

“My first ‘expedition’ was in 2003 to Mexico. Following a Dartington Summer School, where I met a fabulous Argentinian group called Luis Berger Ensemble and an amazing Bolivian lady named Annie de Copponex, I was invited to the Santa Cruz Festival in Bolivia. and I’ll be going for my fifth trip to South America in January.

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“Throughout my travels I’ve been encouraged, inspired and helped by an army of musicians, musicologists and archivists. They’re all listed in the liner notes on our new Brazilian Adventures CD on the Hyperion label.”

Much of the music on this latest release from Ex Cathedra is to be featured in the chamber choir’s concert at Birmingham Town Hall on December 4, entitled A Brazilian Christmas, in which a centre-piece is Matinas de Natal by Castro Lobo, one of Brazil’s most important 18th-century composers.

The two Brazilian centres which are the source of this programme’s music are the buzzing city of Rio de Janeiro and the remote Ouro Preto, an enchanting town in the mountains, as Jeffrey describes.

“This is a magical place with its vast number of baroque churches, cobbled streets and its famous museum at the top of the town in Tiradentes Square. Many of the original manuscripts are found here and at Mariana, a few miles away.

“I flew from Rio to Belo Horizonte in Minas Gerais, the gold-mining region, and then took a bus into the hills to Ouro Preto. It felt remote, especially during some of the savage thunderstorms when you imagined the road would be washed away!”

A recent edition of the BBC Music magazine ran a feature about music from baroque South America, but made no mention of Jeffrey Skidmore’s work with Ex Cathedra. Is this yet another example of London ignoring the rest of the country, I ask Jeffrey?

The words of his reply are tactfully chosen.

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“You learn to be resilient about these things, although this sort of ignorance is frustrating. I don’t think it’s malicious or a conspiracy, but simply the result of ignorance.

“Ex Cathedra plays a significant part in the cultural life of Birmingham and the region but there have been many occasions when journalists have written about the music scene in Birmingham and not mentioned Ex Cathedra.

“Ex Cathedra has also led the way in this country and internationally in certain areas of Early Music – French baroque and South American music in particular but we have also shown new insights into Gabrieli, Monteverdi, Charpentier, Lassus, Bouzignac, Le Jeune... the list is quite long! I could add Mendelssohn and Elgar to that list – period instrument performances, both recorded but not released.

“But we don’t get the recognition in the media. Players, singers, musicologists and composers know about what we do and that is very important to me. There is fantastic support from them.”

* Ex Cathedra Choir and Baroque Orchestra perform A Brazilian Christmas at Birmingham Town Hall on Sunday (4pm), at the start of a busy period for the choir, with Christmas concerts throughout the region and the famous Candlelight events at St Paul’s Church in the Jewellery Quarter from December 19 to 23.

Upcoming Concerts

* The Midland Sinfonia's "Concert by Candlelight" brings an attractive programme of works by Corelli, Mendelssohn, Neruda (Trumpet Concerto, soloist Anthony Thompson), Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Handel to St Laurence's Church, Alvechurch (7.30pm, details on 0121 447 7040).

* ¡Handel's Fireworks are delivered by the Armonico Consort and Baroque Orchestra at St Mary's Church in Warwick on December 6, not just the famous Suite, but also the Dettingen Te Deum, The King Shall Rejoice, and Zadok the Priest (7.30pm, 0844 581 0750).

* City of Birmingham Organist Thomas Trotter welcomes the Choristers of Westminster Abbey under their music director James O'Donnell for a lunchtime hour of Christmas music at Symphony Hall on Wednesday, December 7 (1pm, details on 0121 780 3333).

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