Jeffrey Skidmore introduces Ex Cathedra’s 2023-24 season

“proof, if proof were needed, of why Ex Cathedra are regarded as one of the UK’s elite choirs”

Ex Cathedra is special. A highly regarded music critic once said that the choir was probably the best in the world. This is quite a claim and not only includes the technical virtuosity and unique chemistry of the singers but also the ethos of the ensemble, its ability and desire to communicate with audiences, its imaginative programming, its stylistic awareness and above all its humanity. Ex Cathedra’s orchestra is a mixture of leading players and talented young players at the beginning of their careers and perfectly complements the choir. Our participation and education work adds a further crucial dimension. All these elements allow the group to explore an extraordinary range of diverse repertoire which addresses the important issues of our age including climate change, immigration, racism, the fight against torture, world peace, health and equality. We perform at the highest possible level traditional repertoire and newly commissioned music from every continent in our aim to make great music accessible to everybody. Another leading commentator, festival director and respected musical thinker summed up our work by saying that Ex Cathedra was “the most sophisticated, three dimensional and multi-layered of all the leading groups in the country”. This is high praise and something we strive to maintain.

Welcome to Ex Cathedra’s 53rd season. In it we celebrate several important anniversaries and events: Rachmaninoff (150), Bach’s St John Passion (300), William Byrd (400), the Student Scholarship Scheme (5), the recent death of Burt Bacharach and the 60th anniversary of the assassination of John F Kennedy on St Cecilia’s Day 1963.

Baroque music is central to understanding western classical music and it is at the heart of Ex Cathedra’s work. Our home town Birmingham, perhaps surprisingly, has a proud and distinguished history in this field and we continue our exploration of Birmingham Baroque with three programmes.

Baroque Passion includes pieces from the full 150 years which define the period from Monteverdi through Purcell, Charpentier and Carissimi to the great Johann Sebastian Bach.

Our Good Friday concert this year is Bach’s St John Passion a powerful setting of the Apostle’s dramatic text. It marks the 300th anniversary of the first performance in Leipzig in 1724.

At the beginning of the Christmas festivities Ex Cathedra performs Handel’s Messiah, the ‘greatest story ever told’ with some of the most famous and well-loved arias and choruses ever written.

What distinguishes an Ex Cathedra performance? Freshness is frequently mentioned, even in pieces we have often performed, as is the quality of our team of soloists who also sing in the choruses and are part of the choir and the Ex Cathedra Consort. This company of skilled singers (12 for Messiah) who work regularly together create the stylistic consistency which is one of the hallmarks of Ex Cathedra’s work.

From Byrd to Bacharach - and Bach is a typically wide-ranging programme to celebrate the 5th anniversary of Student Scholarships, a highly successful, formal scheme which has developed in recent years between Ex Cathedra and the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. Ex Cathedra’s Scholars Consort works at a high level to prepare young singers for the professional world. The repertoire is typically eclectic and includes music by Charpentier, Purcell, Britten as well as the programme’s three eponymous Bs.

On July 7th the recording label Signum releases our latest CD of music by Alec Roth - The Traveller and Earth and Sky - which features the choir, Ex Cathedra’s Academy, Britten Sinfonia, the Indian storyteller Vayu Naydu and Mark Padmore. In September we record a CD of Liz Dilnot Johnson’s choral music, a superb portfolio of music which Ex Cathedra has commissioned or premiered in the last few years. These two de facto composers-in-residence have always been a major part of our two solstice programmes Summer Music by Candlelight and Christmas Music by Candlelight, which provide a platform for accessible new music alongside popular gems and traditional seasonal repertoire performed in the magic of candlelight.

After over 50 years as Artistic Director and Conductor of Ex Cathedra, succession has been in my thinking for some time and you will have the opportunity to see and hear, in the ‘solstice concerts’, three young and recent Associate Conductors who will have further opportunity to work with the group.

The season starts with Rachmaninoff’s All-night Vigil, his most-loved work using orthodox chants from the Znamenny tradition, Greece and poignantly from the Ukrainian capital Kyiv. Recent discoveries from the original 1915 poster inform our performance and bells, so dear to Rachmaninoff and Russian Christian culture, will sound the chants between movements.

Our programme is for everyone. I hope to see you soon.

Jeffrey Skidmore, April 2023

Ex Cathedra is a B:Music Associate Artist