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on Tue, 27 Aug 2019
The 50th anniversary celebrations of the moon landing and the Stonewall Riots have both received plenty of publicity this year, but there’s another half-century being celebrated in 2019 too... Birmingham’s Ex Cathedra is 50 glorious years old and still going strong - as What’s On found out when we caught up with the ensemble’s founder, conductor and artistic director, Jeffrey Skidmore...
Leading UK choir and Early Music ensemble Ex Cathedra celebrates its 50th anniversary this season with a jam-packed programme of great classical works. Its founder, Jeffrey Skidmore - awarded an OBE in the 2015 New Years honours list for his service to choral music - is both the artistic director and conductor of this extraordinary organisation.
“There are so many reasons why Ex Cathedra is different from other choral and orchestral groups,” says Jeffrey. “The first thing is that the amount of time we’ve been going and continued to be popular is quite extraordinary. We also have a very interesting approach to the classical repertoire. We perform the great, iconic works alongside ones that are very old and have been somewhat lost, while also regularly commissioning new works. I think our programmes are always quite refreshing in that way. We have the most fantastic amateur and professional singers in Ex Cathedra, which is also supplemented by top-quality students, and we’ve just launched a graduate scholarship scheme. So that blend of professional, amateur and student is probably unique in the country in terms of choirs.
“We’ve always had an education part of Ex Cathedra. We work in schools, with communities, in hospitals and other healthcare facilities, so we’re committed to making classical music and singing accessible to all. Singing is such an important part of people’s lives and is fantastic for their physical and mental health. It brings joy to lives. There’s so much scientific evidence to support the positive impact it has. Pop music is focused around singing rather than instrumental; at football matches, stadiums full of people sing their hearts out in support of their team. Singing is a basic human need, I think, along with nourishment and socialisation.
“Research is also an important part of what we do. We work with post-graduate students at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire to research repertoire, including our particular speciality in French Baroque music. So putting all those things together, you get this special organisation that we have at Ex Cathedra.”
The ensemble started as a small gathering of Jeffrey’s friends: “Back when I was a sixth-former - just before I founded Ex Cathedra - I was singing in Birmingham Cathedral Choir. My great mentor, Roy Massey, didn’t do much Renaissance music with the choir. I was a counter-tenor - a male alto - at the time and I loved Renaissance music, so initially I got a group of people together just to do that 16th century repertoire. Ex Cathedra grew out of that: just a few friends from Bournville, where I sang as a chorister and went to school, and a few older people from Birmingham Cathedral. When I went to Oxford for university, singers I met there came to Birmingham to join us. So, from there, it’s expanded into the incredible resource we see today. Wanting to do Renaissance music was the initial spark, really.”
Ex Cathedra will be celebrating its 50 years with a programme of old favourites and new commissions: “I’ve chosen five pieces that are amongst the greatest that exist in the choral repertoire and which have been particularly important in the 50 years of Ex Cathedra. We open our season with Rachmaninoff’s Vespers, which we recently performed to a packed audience at Three Choirs Festival. Secondly, we have Bach Mass in B Minor, which is important to us as it launched our period instrument orchestra in 1983 - the first one of its kind outside London and which is still going strong.
“Next, we’ll have Missa Solemnis, which is probably Beethoven’s greatest piece but perhaps not that popular because it’s a challenging work for both players and audiences. However, it’s certainly his greatest piece as far as I’m concerned. We also did Missa Solemnis as part of our 25th anniversary programme, so it’s a piece we have a long history with and like to return to.
“Then comes Bach’s St John Passion on Good Friday at Symphony Hall, which was the first of Bach’s Passions we performed. Nowadays we do it with period instruments and a community choir, our Academy takes part in the liturgical reconstruction, and it’s proved very popular. We’re always trying to make this great music accessible to everybody, either by taking part in it in some way or by hosting discovery workshops to help people get into it.
“Our fifth and final concert isn’t in our brochure yet because we’re still in the planning and funding stages, but it looks as though it’s going to happen in July. It’s a classical Indian weekend of music, which is a genre we’ve been doing for a while. Alec Roth, who’s been our composer-in-residence for the last 12 years, has written us some great pieces. One, called The Traveller, uses translated sacred Indian texts and is performed by an orchestra, children’s and community choir. We have the orchestra Britten Sinfonia coming from Cambridge to play for us, and Mark Padmore, who’s a big name in the singing world, is going to be the tenor, so that will be our contribution to the Indian Classical Weekend.”
Jeffrey is confident that Ex Cathedra’s programme for this season has something for everyone, from the classical music connoisseur to those who don’t know their Bach from their Beethoven: “I think our 50th anniversary season is brilliant. We’re focusing on such important works, both to us and to our audiences. But mainly Cathedra’s ability to understand a piece and communicate to our audience, to get across the meaning and feeling of the piece to those listening, is a really special skill.
“I think if you’re a regular concert-goer you will love what Ex Cathedra have to offer. But equally, if you’re someone who’s never been to any concerts, then Ex Cathedra is just as great. We get such positive feedback from people who’ve never been to a classical concert before but who end up finding our concerts really engaging and then go on to become big fans of classical. Ex Cathedra really is the place to start for newcomers willing to give classical music the chance it deserves.”
Jeffrey is also the artistic director of the Early Music programme at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, a role which he continually links back to Ex Cathedra: “The Conservatoire is really going from strength to strength, particularly in the area that I work in with early music and period instruments, as Julian Lloyd Webber is very keen to develop this area. We have an extraordinary, distinguished team of musicologists at Birmingham Conservatoire, and next year we’ve attracted the Biennial International Conference on Baroque Music, which previously had been held in Salzburg and Paris and now is coming to Birmingham.
The bid we had was so strong because of the interest and expertise in Baroque music based in Birmingham - Birmingham Baroque seems to have a lovely ring to it! My role, then, is to link what Ex Cathedra are and have been doing to what’s going on at the Conservatoire. For example, we have four Student Scholars from the Conservatoire who sing with Ex Cathedra.”
It’s Jeffrey’s strong desire to engage as many people as possible with classical music - particularly the younger generation - that really drives him on: “Getting great classical music across to younger audiences is my mission, really. If people, especially young people, don’t have the opportunity of experiencing this music, then it will be lost forever. Creating an appetite for high-quality music is always on the agenda.”
The poor state of music education in schools is a major concern for Jeffrey: “Funding is one of the biggest challenges for the classical music scene. Music education is really in a terrible fix in state schools, while in private, independent schools it’s blossoming. But music is for everyone, and that sector of education needs some special attention and funding, so that those in state schools don’t miss out.”
For more information on the programme for Ex Cathedra’s 50th anniversary season, visit excathedra.co.uk
By Lauren Cole