Christopher Morley talks to composer Alec Roth about his collaboration with one of Birmingham's finest choirs
Ex Cathedra, the crack chamber choir born and bred more than 40 years ago in the West Midlands, frequently performs programmes devoted to a single composer, with Monteverdi, Bach, Handel and Rachmaninov immediately springing to mind.
It’s not so often, though, that the ensemble dedicates an entire concert to one sole contemporary composer, but this is what will happen on Sunday (November 20) when Ex Cathedra’s programme highlights the compositions of Alec Roth in Birmingham Town Hall.
Alec, of German and Irish descent, has had an illustrious musical career, beginning with graduating from the University of Durham before studying conducting with Diego Masson and Rafael Kubelik, and becoming an expert on the Indonesian gamelan. His chief activity nowadays is as a freelance composer.
He tells me how his connections with Ex Cathedra came about.
“Like many people, I came to Ex Cathedra and their director Jeffrey Skidmore through their brilliant Latin American Baroque recordings. When I needed a choir for a new piece, I thought of them. I went to hear them perform live, and also sneaked in to observe the rehearsal. I felt theirs was an approach to music-making that I wanted to be part of.
“They gave the premiere of my Shared Ground in 2007, and since then Jeffrey has become a champion of my music, for which I shall always be grateful. It was a singular honour to be asked to compose a piece, Earthrise, to mark their 40th anniversary in 2009, although the requirement that it be in 40 parts was an enormous challenge. It completely took over my life for six months and I came away with renewed admiration for Thomas Tallis and his 40-part Spem in alium!” And I as a reviewer can vouch that the premiere of Earthrise made a huge impression on everyone present in Birmingham Town Hall.
In addition to his connections with Ex Cathedra, Alec Roth enjoys writing for particular performers, the tenor Mark Padmore, guitarist Morgan Szymanski and violinist Philippe Honore among them. Is it something about their style that appeals to him, or does he learn to tailor his music around them?
“For me, establishing creative working relationships with particular performers is one of the greatest pleasures of being a composer,” he explains.
“It’s also a most rewarding way of deepening one’s knowledge of one’s craft. For example, working with Philippe Honoré on Ponticelli (to be performed at the Town Hall concert on 20 November) enabled me to learn the technicalities of composing for solo violin.”
Another spectacular collaboration has been that between Alec and the author Vikram Seth.
“Words are an important source of inspiration. I was attracted to Vikram’s writing by its lovely combination of clarity and directness of expression, with richness and depth of feeling. There’s something in it which connects deeply with me, immediately bringing musical ideas to mind.
“We first met in 1990 and began collaborating soon after. I’m truly fortunate that he’s written so many new texts for me to set to music. He is a most generous collaborator and great fun to work with, although our common addiction to crossword puzzles can get in the way as we pore over the latest ‘Listener’ instead of getting down to work. Vikram’s new book, The Rivered Earth, published this month, contains an account of our recent collaborations, and ‘the pleasures and pains of working with a composer’...”
Alec continues by revealing a little about the works to be performed on November 20.
“As well as Shared Ground and Earthrise, concert will include the world premiere of my latest work for Ex Cathedra: Hymn to Gaia, for children’s choir, mixed choir and bass drum. I’ve set two wonderful texts (the Homeric and Orphic Hymns to Gaia) which, although from ancient Greece, speak directly to us today. The words are sung in the original Greek by the adults, and in an English translation by the children. I love working with young people, so it has been a particular pleasure to involve Ex Cathedra’s Academy and Junior Academy in this piece.”
Alec Roth was speaking to me at his new home in Malvern, and he told me of his enthusiasm for that beautiful capital of “Elgarshire”.
“I relocated to Malvern just a few weeks ago after more than twenty years in London. For my composing I need peace and quiet. I thought a few walks on the Malvern Hills might be musically inspiring – there’s quite a good precedent.”
* Ex Cathedra’s concert on 20 November at Birmingham Town Hall will include the launch of Shared Ground, their new CD of Alec Roth’s music. Vikram Seth will be in attendance to sign copies of The Rivered Earth (4pm, details on 0121 780 3333).