Ex Cathedra bring their slickly performed touring Yuletide concert to London.
The Birmingham-based choral ensemble Ex Cathedra is currently touring its ‘Christmas Music by Candlelight’ concert (dates up to 23 December). Most of the performances are in the Midlands, but their London date in St John’s Smith Square gave us a chance to listen to this award-winning group whose Arts Council funding has recently been increased.
One thing is unquestionable: Ex Cathedra know how to present a well balanced and entirely enjoyable Christmas event that appeals on all fronts. The choice of carols represents old and new, well known and unusual; the readings that break up the choral sets are just as varied, from passages of scripture to poetry and prose by Henry VIII, Francis Quarles, Tim Minchin and Jeanette Winterson; there are processions and movement, with items sung from all around the building; there are candles, drums, and bells, organ music and even, in one of the Ešenvalds pieces, the sounds of a glass harmonica played by members of the choir. The whole – under the masterly yet unostentatious direction of their conductor Jeffrey Skidmore – is slickly worked together into two seamless halves that leave the listener feeling thoroughly Yule-ready.
One of the great pleasures of the concert was to hear a group of well-rehearsed, beautifully blended adult singers perform with unaffected competence. They’d given five performances of the repertoire already, so it would have been well ingested, but it was in the choral staples – such as the Willcocks arrangements of Away in a Manger and Sussex Carol, Bruckner’s Ave Maria, Vaughan Williams’ Wassail, Joubert’s Torches, Matthias’ Sir Christèmas and Poulenc’s O Magnum Mysterium – that one really appreciated the work that had gone into carefully studied control of dynamic, tempo and ensemble. We tend to think of Christmas choral music being sung mostly by church or cathedral choirs (the King’s Nine Lessons and Carols service being the template), so it was a welcome change to hear this repertoire performed in something other than the ‘English cathedral sound’ – accounts that were less plummy, with consonants and vowels unforced, but present simply by dint of excellent co-ordination.
“Ex Cathedra know how to present a well balanced and entirely enjoyable Christmas event…”
You may or may not care for it (I don’t, particularly), but one of the group’s specialisms is music of the post-Minimalist ‘homophony with cluster chords’ school, and their performances of Todd’s My Lord has come, Tarney’s The waiting sky Roth’s On every new day and Ešenvalds’ Stars were all excellent, the intonation spot on. One major exception to this band of composers of contemporary church choral music is James MacMillan, whose more varied output proves him to be a composer who can actually handle the complexities of counterpoint; his And lo, the angel of the Lord (an Ex Cathedra commission) bore witness to the exceptional qualities of both composer and performers, as the complex polyphonies of the angels’ ‘Glory to God’ rang out between galleries and main platform with practised assurance and thrilling effect.
It wasn’t all intense and legato, though. Martin Bates’ Three Songs for Christmas are full of driving duple time rhythms – be they light and busy (‘He comes in the night’), ponderous (‘How will you your Christmas keep?’) or ‘syncopated marching band’ (‘With a merry ding dong!’). These were presented with élan and a sure understanding of style, as was (with extra camp sprinkles) Jim Clulee’s arrangement of Adam’s Minuit Chrétiens (‘O Holy Night’).
Favourite of the evening? Liz Dilnot Johnson’s A wild midwinter carol – a snappy (but occasionally quiet), folksy energy enlivened by ‘chum-chum’ in the lower voices and lots of twinkling bells.
• Future performances are on 19, 20, 21, 22 and 23 December, all in St Paul’s Church, Birmingham.