It’s not every Christmas concert that complete strangers in the audience spontaneously offer you a mug of mulled wine in the interval. But then the beautifully-conceived sequences of Christmas Music by Candlelight that Jeffrey Skidmore and Ex Cathedra present each Christmas at St Paul’s Church aren’t just any Christmas concerts. That spirit of goodwill has become part of the experience: few concerts in Birmingham each year create such a sense of community between performers and audience.
The formula remains as simple as ever: mostly unaccompanied vocal music performed in near-darkness and punctuated by carefully chosen readings. It works beautifully. If you’re going to be Scrooge-like about it, the only slight misfire this year was the borderline-twee quality of a couple of those spoken texts. We’ve got Alan Titchmarsh at Symphony Hall for that sort of thing: Ex Cathedra’s concerts are different and special.
And where it mattered, this concert really was: in the silent choreography with which the singers moved around the darkened church, in Alex Mason’s thunderous, chromatic organ improvisation at the evening’s climax, and above all, in Skidmore’s endlessly fascinating choice of repertoire. Old favourites like Kirkpatrick’s setting of Away in a Manger – sung with honeyed tenderness – provided just enough comfort and familiarity amidst works by Sally Beamish, Judith Weir, Hildegard of Bingen and Eriks Esenvalds.
The raw vocal fanfares of James MacMillan’s antiphonal And Lo The Angel of the Lord brought singing of piercing energy, while the shimmering harmonies of Jan Sandström’s Es ist ein Ros entsprungen seemed to glow in the darkness like an Aurora borealis. Once again, Skidmore and his team achieved the impossible on a raucous pre-Christmas night in central Brum – restoring both mystery and optimism to this much-abused season.