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New Jerusalem by Ex Cathedra: 'I doubt this performance could ever be bettered'

This performance at Birmingham Town Hall stunned the audience into silence

*****
Jeffrey Skidmore
Jeffrey Skidmore

One of the many secrets to the success of Ex Cathedra is the way they and director Jeffrey Skidmore have worked together for nearly 50 years, the squad obviously developing and renewing, but always steeping itself in mutual trust and brilliantly efficient rehearsal methods.

And how that paid dividends in Saturday’s demanding concert, with two world premieres as well as a taxing lengthy unaccompanied work.

The only easy bit was Parry’s Jerusalem, where the expert chamber choir was joined by a 1,000-strong audience, all of us conscientiously observing the dynamics conveyed by Skidmore’s communicative direction.

New Jerusalem was in fact the theme of the programme, linking the Book of Revelations with the misplaced hope that the end of the First World War would bring about a global rebirth (the shattering of that ideal is implicit in the way we name that conflict).

Further Parry, his Songs of Farewell, poignantly expressed the aspirations of a generous-hearted old man as the end of that War approached. The demands it puts upon the chorus are taxing, requiring a controlled response to such emotional texts, and a huge, lengthy responsibility to maintain pitch, and Skidmore’s Ex Cathedra were awesome.

Between the two Parry offerings came the first of the evening’s premieres, Roxanna Panufnik’s Since We Parted, a wonderfully warm work of immense emotional sincerity interweaving two deeply-felt poems of lovers’ separations.

Robert Bulwer-Lytton’s mid-Victorian eponymous poem fused perfectly with Kathleen Coates’ A Year and a Day, written on the brink of the First World War, and Panufnik’s well-layered choral textures combined with adroit imagery from a tiny instrumental group to create a heart-stopping 10 minutes.

Four times its length was the evening’s other premiere, James MacMillan’s Seven Angels, bringing to life the Book of Revelations’ Last Judgment and picking up a century later on Elgar’s reluctance so to do in his own New Testament trilogy.

Sharing with Elgar a desire for performance authenticity, MacMillan makes extensive use of two shofars (temple fanfaring instruments) brilliantly alternating with natural trumpets at the lips of Mark Bennett and Simon Munday, high in the organ-loft.

There are also virtuoso parts for solo cello (Andrew Skidmore), harp (Lucy Wakeford) and percussion (Sarah Stuart).

And, of course, the chorus, from which soloists emerge in Ex Cathedra’s traditional manner. MacMillan’s vocal scoring shares the often improvisatory nature of Penderecki’s St Luke Passion, including swooping exhalations, whistling, rapid teeth-palate alternations, humming and the like, all with the effect of setting his more conventional, fully-harmonised choral writing into glorious prominence.

As Seven Angels progressed, naturally structured upon each of the seven angel’s fanfaring, towards its visionary conclusion, we arrived at a final F minor chord, and the sound was genuinely ecstatic.

I doubt this performance could ever be bettered. The stunned audience silence at the end could have gone on forever.

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