Jeffrey Skidmore tells Christopher Morley why he sees Handel's Messiah as the ideal challenge for students.
One of Jeffrey Skidmore's greatest ambitions during the 15-plus years that he has directed Birmingham Conservatoire's Capelle ensemble has been to conduct the students in a period-instrument presentation of Handel's Messiah.
The group exists in order to give students experience in historically informed performance. They research performing styles of the past and work at reproducing them in their own playing, and Skidmore sees Messiah as a perfect vehicle for a student project.
"It's one of the great mainstream works, and the students will perform it many times in their careers," he tells me at his Lichfield home. "This project gives them the opportunity to look at it in meaningful detail, and it challenges them technically, emotionally, and in terms of stamina and concentration."
And tomorrow the vision becomes reality when he directs the Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir and Capelle Baroque Ensemble in a performance of Messiah at the Adrian Boult Hall.
Jeffrey has chosen to work on the 1784 version of the oratorio, an arrangement specially created with additional instruments (horns, trombones, double-bassoon and others) to mark the 25th anniversary of Handel's death. And in those days it was erroneously believed that 1784 also celebrated the centenary of the composer's birth (in fact he was born in 1685, the same year as Bach and Scarlatti), so that was an extra excuse for a gala performance.
"And 1784 was also the first properly constituted Birmingham Triennial Festival," he adds. "We know the names of the singers and which solo versions they sang. So when we perform it on Friday at the Conservatoire we'll be able to share solos between undergraduate and postgraduate singers.
"Though the ABH is a fine venue, it would have been even better to use St Philip's Cathedral in Colmore Row, which was the original venue in 1784!"
During their pre-Conservatoire training, instrumental students will have been coached almost entirely in mainstream, one-size-fits-all orchestral technique based on early 20th-century models, but Jeffrey Skidmore finds no difficulty in persuading the youngsters to tackle a different way of making their instruments "speak".
"To be successful in 'period' style you have to want to do it and have the skill to do it," he explains. "It's much easier these days with historically informed performance now being considered mainstream. There's a long history of successful work at the Conservatoire in this field, and the students are motivated, and have a great attitude.
"It's a real pleasure to work with them and their teachers. It's an exciting collaboration!"
Jeffrey Skidmore is taking a longer view about Messiah, planning beyond tomorrow's student performance. On April 5 Ex Cathedra, the much-admired chamber choir he founded nearly 40 years ago, begins extended celebrations for that ruby anniversary with a performance of the 1784 version of Messiah at Symphony Hall, accompanied by the crack period-instrument ensemble, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.
"It was always part of the plan that Conservatoire students should be involved in the Ex Cathedra performance, as will students from the University of Birmingham, and our own academy."
Over nearly 40 years Ex Cathedra has encouraged and developed young local talent, with many of these singers going on to carve illustrious international careers for themselves. Among such names are the soprano Carolyn Sampson, mezzo Diana Moore and tenor Paul Agnew, and others include the sopranos Natalie Clifton-Griffith and Elizabeth Cragg, mezzo Alexandra Gibson and baritone Jonathan Gunthorpe.
"They go on to have successful careers at the highest level, but although they're 'superstars' they acknowledge the support given by Ex Cathedra in the early part of their career and want to give something back," says Jeffrey.
"So occasionally they come back and sing solos with us, which is very enjoyable and inspiring for all of us."
An important element in Ex Cathedra's 40th anniversary celebrations is the formation of a "reunion choir" for the Messiah on April 5.
"The aim is to recreate the Triennial Festival Chorus, in hopes of bringing to life the 'world-class' choir that received such extraordinary plaudits in the 19th century."
Such as the famous one from Saint-Saens, who, after the Birmingham premiere of his La Lyre et la Harpe in 1879, wrote in a French newspaper:
"I wish people who describe the English as unmusical could hear the Birmingham singers. This wonderful choir has everything: intonation, perfect timing and rhythm, finely shaded expression and a lovely sound. If people who sing like this are not musical, well, they certainly perform as if they were the finest musicians in the world."
Jeffrey Skidmore continues with his idea of reassembling many of Ex Cathedra's past constituents.
"It will bring together all the elements that have made Ex Cathedra successful - amateur, professional, student - from across the region and beyond, calling on the significant number of singers that have performed with us in recent years. It is hoped it will be a vibrant, new resource for the future, and a large choir for the 21st century bringing together youth and experience."
I end with a cheeky question. Will Jeffrey Skidmore be expecting his audiences for these Messiah performances to stand for the Hallelujah Chorus (a musty, senseless tradition I deplore)?
"When it was first given in London after its Dublin premiere, King George II stood - for whatever reason - and everyone else had to follow. Perhaps Professor George Caird could lead the way for our performance!
"Ex Cathedra performed the Hallelujah Chorus as an encore at our recent 'Christmas Music by Candlelight' concerts, immediately following the traditional audience singing of 'See amid the winter snow'.
"The audience were caught sitting down while realising they should perhaps stand for the Handel. What a dilemma, and quite amusing!"
Just as funny as seeing the audience stand when the side-drum rolls strike up, thinking the National Anthem is about to be played, when all it is is Rossini's Thieving Magpie overture.
* Jeffrey Skidmore conducts Handel's Messiah at the Adrian Boult Hall tomorrow evening (7pm). Details on 0121 303 2323. He conducts Ex Cathedra in Messiah at Symphony Hall on April 5 (6.30pm). Details on 0121 780 3333.