The programmes Jeffrey Skidmore devises for Ex Cathedra are not mere concert-offerings. They are also educational experiences and, beyond even that, fascinating examples of presentation, exploring every resource of the performance space.
Sunday afternoon's sequence was brilliant in its simplicity, a reconstruction of the Grand Tour made by the 18th-century musical historian Charles Burney to investigate the state of music in Europe. Gossipy extracts from his writings were compiled into a witty script by Derek Acock, and read colourfully and waspishly by CBSO Chief Executive Stephen Maddock.
And this was indeed a rewarding collaboration between Ex Cathedra and the CBSO, whose musicians played with an invigorating awareness of baroque style, many on period instruments, and who obviously relished the experience.
We began in London with Handel's Zadok the Priest, Skidmore building from nothing an orchestral crescendo worthy of Rossini, culminating in a thrilling choral entry. The move to France brought tender, reflective pastoralism in works by de Mondonville and de Lalande (fabulous CBSO flute, oboes and bassoons in this sequence).
Venice found Burney surprisingly happy, and brought us Giovanni Gabrieli's exuberantly madrigalian In Ecclesiis with its sturdy, trombone-led ending, and Vivaldi's Domine ad adjuvandum me, crisp and jaunty in delivery, and with the Ex Cathedra sopranos singing with a freshness which evoked the young orphaned girls under the Red Priest's tutelage.
Finally Rome, and the esoteric charisma of Allegri's Miserere. Symphony Hall became the Sistine Chapel, acoustic doors opened to their maximum, the crucial solo ensemble dispersed in offstage areas and in the organ-loft, and the whole performance casting a spell where we almost ignored the clarity of diction and the unaccompanied security of intonation, so overwhelming was this incense-like effect.
If all these had been tremendous in performance, Skidmore's account of Handel's early Dixit Dominus transcended everything. This is an amazing work, virtuosic not only in harmonic and contrapuntal technique, but also in the modern Italianate orchestral writing and musical illustration of textual imagery.
Skidmore's choristers delivered Handel's almost instrumental vocal lines with panache, accuracy and stamina, the soloists (drawn, as usual, from Ex Cathedra's own ranks) put stylish performance of the music before their own personalities, and these 40 minutes simply flew by. I wish they'd record this.