EX CATHEDRA | Songs of Protest - Musical Opinion review

“In Birmingham Town Hall on 13 November, Ex Cathedra and conductor Jeffrey Skidmore presented a Remembrance Sunday early-evening concert entitled ‘Songs of Protest’.  The programme consisted of four substantial choral pieces, two of them receiving their first performance, by composers with whom the choir has worked with over several years.  Based on themes of resistance and defiance, the featured scores addressed critical issues such as illegal imprisonment, the fight against torture and repression, as well as the need for compassion and peace.

“James MacMillan’s Cantos Sagrados (‘Sacred Songs’), for choir and organ (1989) was a fervent, thoughtful work in which settings of poems by Ariel Dorfman and Ana Maria Mendoza concerned with political repression and the ‘disappearance’ of prisoners in Latin America were coupled with passages from the Latin liturgy.  The composer’s interest in liberation theology had already born fruit in a music theatre work, Busqueda and Cantos Sagrados explores further the religious and political themes of that earlier piece.   

“The singers captured the urgency and biting immediacy of the search for the identity of a found body in the first Dorfman setting, punctuated by organist Jonathan Hope’s crisply articulated, dissonant chords.  However, the most memorable and affecting musical experience was provided by the poised, hypnotically reiterative treatment of Mendoza’s prayer to the Virgin of Guadalupe at the heart of the score.  Delivered with bite and precision, the terse concluding ‘Sun Stone’, in which Dorfman presents the final words of an executioner to his victim, returned to the same unsettled, abrupt soundworld as the opening movement.  The increasingly hushed closing paragraphs, where the executioner pleads for forgiveness, were movingly rendered, especially the final, heartfelt whispered entreaty.       

“Commissioned by Quaker Concern for the Abolition of Torture, Sally Beamish’s A Knock on the Door (2021) featured a specially written, powerfully forthright text by Peter Thomson condemning torture and its malign consequences on both victim and perpetrator.  The piece was scored for two choirs, percussion, electronic keyboard and a pre-recorded soundtrack containing heavy metal band music.  The choirs represented the torturer and the victim and towards the end of the work, in a dramatic coup de theatre, the singers physically swapped places and exchanged roles, underlining the corrosive effect of oppression on both protagonists and the uncomfortable truth that, given certain circumstances, anyone might be forced to assume the role of oppressor or victim.  To underline the unexceptional, everyday nature of the central figures, simple musical language was used, including universally recognisable elements such as jazz, blues and waltz rhythms, as well as music hall and minimalism.  Peter Thomson’s text, consisting predominantly of terse exchanges between the two choirs, was uncompromisingly spare and direct, though incorporating authentic elements of dark humour and a tenacious glimmer of hope in the closing reaffirmations of the word ‘love’.

“The inclusion of impersonal keyboard rather than expressive piano was an effective touch, subtly emphasising the unsettlingly mundane ordinariness of the scenario.  The heavy metal track, notated by Sally Beamish and pre-recorded by guitarist Arthur Dick, was appropriately jarring in its effect, reminding listeners of the use of loud music in acts of sleep deprivation and contrasting markedly with the sustained, intentionally restrained material used elsewhere. 

“Staged with dramatic intensity in this compelling premiere reading, A Knock on the Door is an important, hard-hitting musical statement which makes its mark through unflinching concentration upon a difficult subject matter and by avoiding any lurid sensationalism.  Sally Beamish’s deliberately straightforward style of writing makes it eminently suitable for enterprising non-professional choral forces.  I hope the work will be taken up by other performers.  It bears a crucial message that demands to be passed on.

“After the interval, we heard the very fine cantata South of the Line (1985), for soprano and baritone soloists, choir, two pianos, timpani and percussion by South African-born, Birmingham-based composer John Joubert (1927-2019).  Ex Cathedra’s first commission, this setting of anti-war poems written by Thomas Hardy at the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer conflict, consisted of five contrasting scenes.  Set for the whole ensemble, ‘Embarcation’ captured the sense of occasion and jubilant crowds as troops set sail for the Cape.  After an imposing opening, a vigorous march emerged, curdled by acrid dissonances.  With clear articulation, the choir savoured the setting’s pungent harmonies and rhythms and brought a spirit of sincere compassion to the short, visionary, unaccompanied episode ‘As if they knew not that weep the while’.  Imogen Russell was the eloquent soloist in the following, aria-like ‘A Wife in London’, scored for soprano and piano only, that contrasted dense, outside fog with a husband’s letter ‘Page-full of his hoped return’.  The pianos were silent during the central, cortège-like movement, in which a series of chorales underpinned by timpani strokes grieved for the unhonoured passing of ‘Drummer Hodge’.  There followed another solo number, this time for baritone and piano only, delivered with warmth by Lawrence White expressing the bewilderment of a soldier who has killed someone he might have shared a drink with during peacetime.  In the closing setting, ‘A Christmas Ghost Story’, the atmospheric opening section evoked the expanse of the African landscape.  The latter stages of the movement introduced the embittered thoughts of a dead soldier’s ghost, whose final words, ‘But tarries yet the Cause for which he died’ brought the piece to a starkly assertive conclusion. The BackBeat Percussion Quartet, timpanist Chris Bastock and pianists Jonathan French and Helen Swift provided alert and sensitive accompaniment, while choir and soloists did full justice to John Joubert’s mordant, yet graceful vocal lines, delivering a gripping, emotionally committed performance of one of the composer’s most profoundly rewarding utterances.            

“The recital closed with the premiere of a work by Ex Cathedra’s composer-in-residence Alec Roth.  Peace of the Night is part of an ongoing project with the German group Ensemble Nobiles for a series of five motets by different composers on texts by the German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Alec Roth’s setting, for solo vocal quintet and larger choral ensemble, juxtaposes Bonhoeffer’s prayer with the words and tune of a hymn.  The musicians presented the score’s diverse ingredients with meticulous care and the concluding chorale ended this thought-provoking and memorable musical event in an inspiring spirit of devotional hope.”  

Paul Conway , Musical Opinion (Apr-Jun issue 2023)