‘Is it possible for a carol concert to have a cult following? Ex Cathedra’s annual Christmas Music by Candlelight performances in St Paul’s Church have quietly grown into a Birmingham institution. The audience has evolved its own rituals: camping out through the long interval in the box pews, and sharing improvised picnics of mulled wine and mince pies.
‘The formula, devised by Ex Cathedra’s director Jeffrey Skidmore back when Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter was still lit by gaslight, is simple enough to allow creative elaboration: a candlelit sequence of mostly a capella, mostly modern choral music punctuated by short readings. These concerts have become a cherished refuge for music lovers uninterested in the sleighbells and schmaltz on offer at Birmingham’s major venues.
‘The secret is the deep seriousness with which every detail is realised…
‘What followed was anything but a traditional carol concert. Skidmore never compromises in his programming, and while a few candied chestnuts studded the programme – such as Kirkpatrick’s “Away in a Manger” sung with honeyed sweetness and loving attention to phrase-endings – much of the evening would have passed as a virtuoso survey of contemporary choral idioms, with at least eight items written in the 21st century.
‘It was in these that Ex Cathedra was able to show its range in earnest. The group’s distinctively English sonority – tightly focussed tenors and bright, bell-like sopranos – and reputation for precision don’t preclude passion: there was a bracing ferocity to their tone as they sent the jubilant “Glorys” of James MacMillan’s “And Lo, the Angel of the Lord” skyrocketing into the roof. Or sensuality too: they threw themselves at Naji Hakim’s “Noël c’est la Joie” with an almost tactile pleasure in its lush harmonic curves and bounding “Alleluia”s…
‘This concert generated its own magic, sending you out into a raucous pre-Christmas city centre night with a renewed sense of mystery and wonder.’
Read the rest of the review at www.artsdesk.com