This is the full review supplied by Christopher Morley. The version in the printed edition was curtailed.
Ex Cathedra at Birmingham Town Hall ****
Amidst last weekend’s plethora of Shakespeare celebrations Ex Cathedra was busy delivering a typically probing programme combining the historical with the now.
“Shakespeare Odes” began with the Ode created by Thomas Arne and actor-impresario David Garrick for the dedication of a new statue of the Bard during a Stratford-upon-Avon Shakespeare Jubilee in 1769 (five years too late for the bicentenary of his birth).
At its heart lies a sequence of vocal solos (and one delightful duet) interspersed by a lengthy Shakespeare-quoting piece of bardolatry by Garrick himself, elegantly (legs nicely turned) if occasionally muffledly declaimed by Samuel West. His courtesies to the various vocalists as they took the stage for their numbers were charming.
The soloists were variable in success, but among those outstanding were Katie Trethewey, sweet and true in the several numbers allotted to a Mrs Bartelomon, and Martha McLorinan, joining her as the 18th-century Master Brown in a gorgeous duet.
Instrumental accompaniments from the City Musick were finely attuned, with violinist Emilia outstanding in all her hard work.
What this reconstruction lacked were opening and closing choruses, so those newly-composed by Sally Beamish dovetailed neatly into the overall scheme, and led us surely (via tolling bells and a memorably simple modal melody which we would hear again) into her own new work.
Commissioned with the help of the Feeney Trust, A Shakespeare Masque sets poems by Carol Ann Duffy within a framework of infectiously rhythmic dances (City Musick to the fore here, with plaudits to the tom-tomming Simone Rebello).
These dances serve to accompany the movement around the performing arena, both onstage and all over the auditorium, of the choristers: Ex Cathedra themselves, plus their Academy of Vocal Music, and youngsters, some of them really teeny, from St Gregory’s and St Edmund’s Catholic Primary Schools in Birmingham, and from Snitterfield Primary School.
Full tribute to these children for their exuberance, discipline, and sheer power of memory, remembering both music and Dalcroze-inspired movement, and praise to their teachers and the Ex Cathedra coaches. Perhaps there were a little too much distracting logistics involved, but certainly Jeffrey Skidmore conducted all his quadraphonic forces with a relaxed, marshalling grip which possibly stems from his experience in directing the exuberance of South American religious music.
Beamish’s score is generally a delightful recreation of Shakespeare’s times (City Musick’s colourful blend of instrumental timbres an important facet). But everything stopped for the extraordinary setting of Duffy’s “Anne Hathaway”, mesmerisingly exotic music reflecting the languorous eroticism of Shakespeare’s widow’s memories.
There was audience participation, too, somewhat half-hearted here and perhaps over-reaching. In this genre Britten’s Noye’s Fludde and St Nicolas are insurpassable role-models from long ago, and A Shakespeare Masque follows bravely in their footsteps.
*Repeated at Hereford Cathedral May 6, St Peter’s Collegiate Church Wolverhampton May 7.
Also at Milton Court Concert Hall London on May 12, Southwell Minster Nottinghamshire on May 28.