Two of this country’s most illustrious musical organisations are combining next weekend to bring an all-Bach programme to Symphony Hall.
Jeffrey Skidmore brings his crack chamber choir Ex Cathedra to perform with the CBSO – an orchestra which has become expert in ‘period’ performance – in an evening which climaxes with Bach’s brilliant Magnificat, a work which despite being so concise fires so many emotional arrows, all of them hitting the spot.
Preceding this masterpiece are two of Bach’s best-known cantatas and his glorious Suite no.3 – listen out for the blazing trumpets and drums in D major, warming up for the Magnificat in the same key (October 14, 7.30pm).
The concert comes a day after Jeffrey conducts the Ex Cathedra Consort in the Holy Trinity Church at Blythburgh in Suffolk, as part of the festival celebrating the memory of the composer William Alwyn. Their programme includes works by John Joubert and Alec Roth, both composers who have featured strongly in Ex Cathedra’s repertoire.
“As there are so many Suffolk-based composers represented in the rest of the concert, I wanted to include a couple of our Midlands’ own,” jokes Jeffrey.
Saturday’s Bach concert is the prelude to yet another busy season for Skidmore and Ex Cathedra. Their next big event is the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610, a spectacular, spatial work which has long been one of the group’s calling-cards, when the Consort is joined by His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts providing instrumental support (Birmingham Town Hall, December 3, 4pm).
By this time Ex Cathedra will have begun its now famous round of Christmas Music by Candlelight presentations, kicking off in Shrewsbury’s St Chad’s Church on December 1 (7.30pm). There follow performances in Wolverhampton, Hagley, Leicester, Hereford Cathedral, and St John’s Smith Square in London, before “Candlelight” ends up at its spiritual home, the elegant St Paul’s Church in Hockley, at the heart of Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter.
Such is the popularity of the event in this venue that an extra performance has been added to the regular sequence of four, and in recent years a family concert, “Angels, Stars and Kings” has also featured. This year the hour-long programme is being given on Saturday, December 23 (4pm), and children aged six and above are invited to come dressed as an angel, star or king.
Far from viewing this annual ritual as a jading treadmill, Jeffrey Skidmore couldn’t be more enthusiastic over the whole enterprise. “The programme includes at least 12 living composers, plus commissions, as well as traditional favourites,” he says, “and of course we have the wonderful harpist Lucy Wakeford.”
Symphony Hall is the venue for a fascinating programme, again with the CBSO, on February 4 entitled “Mozart’s Women” (4pm). The title comes from an absorbing book by conductor and musicologist Jane Glover, describing the influences the women in Mozart’s life – his mother, his sister, his cousin (with whom he exchanged a ribald correspondence), the Weber trio of soprano sisters, the soprano Nancy Storace – had on the composer and his music.
Jane Glover herself gives a pre-concert introduction (2.45pm), and the soloists entrusted with recreating Mozart’s favourite sopranos are Carolyn Sampson, Elizabeth Cragg, Elizabeth Adams and Katie Trethewey.
Passiontide sees the Ex Cathedra Consort and Continuo presenting Harmonic Spiritual Theatre “Sacrifice, betrayal, passion” at Birmingham Cathedral on March 10 (5pm). Two early oratorios – Carissimi’s Jepthe, and Charpentier’s Le reniement de St Pierre – are the two main offerings, together with works by Monteverdi, Gesualdo, Anerio and Bouzignac.
Holy Week itself brings Ex Cathedra’s regular Good Friday performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion to Symphony Hall. The soloists on this occasion are headed by Toby Spence as the Evangelist and James Rutherford as Jesus (2pm, sung in German with English surtitles).
We come down to earth at the end of the season with candlelight again, this time “Summer Music by Candlelight” in Birmingham Cathedral on June 19 and 20 (8.30pm).
And while all of these delights are going on, Jeffrey Skidmore is working on a three-year plan to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Ex Cathedra, which will happen in 2020. Stronger links (including research ones) will be forged with Birmingham Conservatoire, Birmingham Baroque will be the title of an ongoing project with Birmingham Cathedral, and relationships with the CBSO and community organisations will be strengthened.
So Ex Cathedra is looking forward to turning its next half-century. Its first one has always had its founder, Jeffrey Skidmore, at the helm, and so he will continue. But realistically, Skidmore is thinking about a possible successor – to what will be a hard act to follow.
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