Jeffrey Skidmore, founder of the Ex Cathedra choir, is not one for playing it safe. Christopher Morley spoke to him about repertoire.
I have often observed that Jeffrey Skidmore, director of the renowned chamber choir Ex Cathedra, must have a portrait of himself in the loft, ageing while he remains youthful, scarcely changing from when I first met him more than 30 years ago.
He will shortly reach his 60th birthday, and Saturday’s concert from the choir he formed during his late teens celebrates that milestone. Over a drink in a comfortable hostelry on Bearwood’s Hagley Road he told me how Ex Cathedra came into existence.
“I was an alto singer at Birmingham Cathedral and loved Renaissance music. We weren’t doing very much at that time, although it was a great choir with Roy Massey as its director, a fantastic choir. So I just got a few friends together to do Renaissance music. That’s the official story, anyway.
“I’d been a chorister at St Francis’ Church in Bournville, but emigrated with my parents to America. Then I came back on my own, and I got this Lay Clerkship at the cathedral.
“It was a mixture of people I’d known at St Francis’ and much older Lay Clerks at Birmingham.”
Amazingly, with Ex Cathedra now comfortably into its fifth decade, some of the original members are still among its ranks, as Jeffrey explains.
“Jim Clulee is still singing with the choir. I went to school with him, and he was a chorister at Bournville, and he was a founder-member of Ex Cathedra. There are other people who’ve been there 30 years, 25 years. Yet there’s still quite a big turnover, quite a young-feeling group.
“This concert on Saturday is not only about celebrating my birthday, and not only about celebrating the range of the group – we’ve got the chamber choir, the consort, vocal tutors’ ensemble, the academy (the young singers we’re training up), and the XL anniversary choir, with people coming back to join us – so that gives me the opportunity of performing this great music.
“Schoenberg, Strauss, Mahler, Debussy, Ravel and then Daniel-Lesur. It’s just an amazing programme.
“That’s what we’re trying to offer to our audience in Birmingham, which has been growing enormously in recent years since we’ve been back at Birmingham Town Hall as artists-in-association.
“We’ve had sellouts at Monteverdi Vespers, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, sellout for Tallis’ Spem in Alium.
“The audiences are there for the iconic pieces, if you like, but still when we do something slightly unusual, even when it’s a great programme when everyone who’s been there has loved it, it’s harder to sell.
“There’s a danger with this one; I mean, the audience are out there, and they grow to trust us, but you put on Schoenberg and they think ‘yahhhhh’!
“But it’s the most beautiful Schoenberg there is, that transition piece Friede auf Erden, one foot in the Romantic, one foot in the modern. And the Strauss Deutsche Motette, how often do you hear a performance of those? It really is a massive piece – and great.”
Ex Cathedra has a worldwide reputation nowadays (early next month Jeffrey takes his singers to America for the first time), but in the beginning it came to recognition as an amateur chorus winning accolades in BBC Radio’s Let the People Sing programme.
How did it break away from that rather cosy syndrome?
“Probably when I did a job-share and started doing conducting full time,” explains Jeffrey. “I was a full-time teacher at John Willmott School in Sutton Coldfield until 1994, and when I decided to give up teaching that gave me the opportunity to develop the skills.
“The other thing was when we decided to have a mixture of amateurs and professionals.
“As you know, we have some great students coming through from the Conservatoire and the University of Birmingham, like Carolyn Sampson, Natalie Clifton-Griffith, Jonathan Gunthorpe, Alexandra Gibson and so on. They went on to London, which apparently they have to do, but they still come back.
“I suppose with me having a bit more freedom I was able to research more thoroughly a new repertoire.
“We did a Lassus CD, we did French baroque stuff, South American music – all those things I could research, and that is such an important part of what we do.
“In the next five, 10 years there’s a plan of research, and if we get through this little tricky phase with the cuts – and there’s no reason why we won’t, but I’m an optimist – we’re about to go into a golden age, because everything’s in place.
“We’ve got a really, really strong setup; there’s an amazing team of people, and we have very unique projects planned for the next four or five years. We’ll take it up to an even higher level.
“We compete with the big boys, and that’s a massive achievement in its own right. We can deliver to Birmingham and the region something that no-one anywhere else can possibly do.
“Because we have the range, we have the depth, we’ve been going for a long time, and I feel very strongly that we are an organic arts organisation.
“We do a unique repertoire. We’ve just set up a partnership with Music of Life to work with disabled children, and others as well. All aspects of music, and singing in particular, touch everything and everybody, and I think we’re in the strongest position of anybody to take that forward.”
* Jeffrey Skidmore conducts Ex Cathedra at a celebratory concert in Birmingham Town Hall on Saturday (7.30pm). Details at thsh.co.uk . Its next CD, Lassus St Matthew Passion, is due for release before Easter.