Ex Cathedra Consort, Jeffrey Skidmore
Milton Court. 5 December 2015
Under the inspired leadership of their artistic director Jeffrey Skidmore, Ex Cathedra has, since 1969, excelled in bringing the highest quality of choral music and related educational projects to the Birmingham area, only occasionally making very welcome visits to London. They run several youth choirs, the main Ex Cathedra choir and the fully professional Ex Cathedra Consort, and also work in schools and hospitals. Many top professional singers have come through their ranks. They continue to combine musical excellence with programmes based on research by their director, notably into South American music of the Baroque era.
Their latest venture down south was to Milton Court with their programme Gaudete!. The first half was based on Jeffrey Skidmore’s research and interspersed Iberian and New World pieces with the Missa Ego flos campi by Juan Gutierrez de Padilla, a Spaniard who settled in Mexico in 1622, where he served as maestro de capilla at Puebla Cathedral for some 35 years. The large choral forces that he had are reflected in the sumptuous scale of the double choir Missa Ego flos campi. The seating arrangement for the choir in Puebla Cathedral was apparently similar to the English Cathedral tradition of left and right groups of singers, encouraging the antiphonal effects that Padilla relishes. The physical gap between the two choirs was underplayed on the Milton Court stage, with the ten singers standing in a single shallow arch on the stage, possibly reducing the antiphonic effect for those sitting towards the back of the hall. On this occasion, it was performed a capella rather than with the instrumental forces that were probably used at the time. It is an extraordinary work, combining traditional European polyphony with the syncopations and rhythmic attributes of Iberian Mexican traditional music. One distinctive feature is his use of repeated phrases, for example, in the Credo, where that word is repeated at least 20 times at intervals.
Inserted between the sections of the Mass was the well-known Polorum regina from the c1400 Libre Vermell de Montserrat, praising the Virgin Mary as a ‘dutiful mother’. It was, rather aptly, followed by the gently soothing lullaby, Xicochi conetzintle (using the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs) by Gaspar Fernandes. Both featured solos from soprano Katie Thretheway. The lively villancicos Riu, riu chie had Greg (no relation) Skidmore leading the chorus in the Christmas story that starts with God protecting Mary from an angry wolf. The Mexican villancicos Oyes día de placer y de cantar! bounced phrases back and forth between high and low voices, to the accompaniment of a tambourine and military drum. The lovely little Sancta Maria e! was sung in the Nahuatl language, while Yyaî Jesuschristo that concluded the first half was in the language of the Bolivian Chiquitos Indians. One reminder of the music of the European mainland came with a powerful interpretation of Victoria’s O magnum mysterium.
That the second half was going to different was clear from the start, with a Somerset yokel wassailing us from the rear gallery, said yokel turning out to be Jeffrey Skidmore. As with the start of the concert (which opened with the hypnotically entrancing Hanac pachap cussiciunin, the oldest example of polyphony from the Americas, 1631), there then followed a processional. The ‘Song of the Nuns of Chester’ started so quietly from way backstage that it gave the impression of actually starting in Chester. Perhaps somebody forgot to open a stage door, but the female singers only became really audible as they entered the stage at the start of the third verse. Other key pieces from the European part of the programme were the French drinking song Tourdion; the gorgeous carol Noé, Noé! Pastoresm cantata Domino by Gillaime Bouzignac with its dialogue between an Angel and the Shepherds, the Angel announcing her presence with a spectacularly high cry of Gloria; Sweelinck’s Hodie Christus, with its joyfully bouncy opening, a Gloria that sounds like a gently flowing stream as the vocal lines gentle unfold, and final jubilant Alleluias. It was followed by the chorale Wie soll ich empfangen from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, where it is set to the same melody as what has become known as the ‘Passion Chorale’.
An interesting feature of the second half was that the interspersed Bible readings were taken from different translations, Wycliffe’s depiction of the Annunciation being particularly attractive. They were very well read by Jill Robinson, who is listed amongst the Ex Cathedra staff as the ‘Host of Angels’, so presumably was better suited for the task than most. The concert finished with a rather half-hearted attempt by those of the audience who had a programme; had been following that programme; were sufficiently alert to notice that the audience were being conducted; and didn’t mind singing to themselves the Advent hymn ‘Of the Father’s love begotten, based on the Piae Cantones.
Ex Cathedra always impress me with their superb blend of consort singing, with Jeffrey Skidmore’s sensitive and undemonstrative conducting bringing out the best from the singers. As well as the two named soloists, most of the other singers had solo spots, all extremely effective.