When one of Birmingham’s finest choirs performs at The Oratory next week it will do so knowing it will be its last concert at the Edgbaston venue.
The magnificent church has hosted countless concerts since it was built just over a century ago but will no longer be hosting the events because it says it wants to conserve the character of the building.
Many of the concerts have been given by two of the city’s greatest choirs, the Birmingham Bach Society and Ex Cathedra, whose traditionally magical candlelit Midsummer Vespers will be the last the public will ever hear in this fabulous location.
Birmingham music groups have voiced their sadness at the decision. For decades it had always been understood that only sacred music would be performed in this actively worshipping Catholic church. This was no problem given the amazing amount of religious pieces in the repertoire of both of these societies and others, such as Birmingham Festival Choral Society, which in 2000 performed Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius to celebrate the centenary of that oratorio’s composition.
The text for one of the most important works ever to come from an English composer was drawn from the lengthy poem written by The Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman, who founded The Oratory in Birmingham and lived there until his death in 1890.
Newman was passionate about music. He was an enthusiastic violinist, and was a regular attender at the Triennial Music Festival in Birmingham Town Hall. And colleagues who had worked with him advised Elgar during the composition of the great oratorio.
Paul Spicer, director of Birmingham Bach Choir, says he is deeply saddened by the decision.
He adds: “While the primary function of the church is to hold services and to maintain a peaceful atmosphere for worshippers, or for those wishing to pray during the day, I find it odd that they do not recognise the power of music to enhance feelings of spirituality in a sacred space when it is well-performed and the music is all devotional, as it always has to be when performing at the Oratory.
“I feel sad, too, that one of Birmingham’s hidden architectural gems will no longer be discovered serendipitously by a concert-goer who may well feel drawn to return either as visitor, or indeed as worshipper if he or she is a Catholic.
“At a time when society is becoming increasingly secularised, the Church needs to examine all its forms of outreach and mission to fulfil its function in society. The Oratory is not a closed order and surely must care about the perception of people who may think this move to close its doors to concerts is a distinctly unfriendly one.”
Jeffrey Skidmore, director of Ex Cathedra, is similarly saddened.
“The Provost, Fr. Ignatius Harrison, explains that this is partly because of a directive issued by the Vatican in the 1980s, which I’m afraid we have been rather slow to catch up with. Of course we accept and respect the decision.
“It’s the end of a wonderful relationship lasting almost 30 years. Ex Cathedra’s first concert in the Oratory was in 1985 in a series of programmes featuring Birmingham churches.
“In this exquisitely spiritual church we have performed much of the greatest sacred music ever written, and in 1991 in its perfect acoustic we recorded our first CD.
“For over 20 years Ex Cathedra has celebrated the summer solstice with Summer Vespers performed at dusk by candlelight, and we have explored the history of the Oratorian movement with programmes such as For the consolation and needs of many (September 95), Harmonic Spiritual Theatre (October 96) and Oratorio Latino (January 97).
“In 2007 we premiered Wings of Faith – a new oratorio by local composer John Joubert. After our first period instrument performances of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius in 2009 we gave an additional performance in 2010 to celebrate the Beatification of Cardinal Newman during the visit of Pope Benedict XVI. I spent many happy hours in The Oratory library marvelling at the original score of this work which Elgar donated in 1902. There are so many very special memories which we’ll all savour.”
Jill Robinson, a former soprano with Ex Cathedra, has fond memories of performing at the venue.
“The Oratory’s spatial qualities make it a wonderful building for polychoral music. “Singing sacred music in a sacred space where the architecture complements the music has always made The Oratory a special place for me.”
No one from The Oratory was available for comment but in a letter to Birmingham Bach Society, Provost Father Ignatius Harrison said: “The decision was taken in order to conserve the sacred character of our church building. In particular, we take the view that it is not appropriate to remove the Blessed Sacrament from the tabernacle on the High Altar in order to facilitate the use of the church for a secular purpose.”
He said the Upper Cloister Hall had been offered as an alternative venue but this has been dismissed by choral groups as unsuitable for major performances.
* Ex Cathedra perform Summer Vespers by Candlelight at The Oratory, Hagley Road, Birmingham on June 25 (9pm). Details on 0121 345 0603 or www.excathedra.co.uk .