JEFFREY SKIDMORE, founder and conductor of Ex Cathedra, spent his birthday last year recovering from throat surgery; but this weekend’s celebrations for his 70th will be rather different.
Tomorrow, Ex Cathedra Around the World, a film looking at the global impact of the choir he founded in 1969, will drop on the choir’s website. And, on Sunday, fans of Radio 3’s Early Music Show can listen (2 p.m.) to a pre-recorded interview with the conductor.
As his voice and music go out over the airwaves, physically Skidmore will be conducting in the Symphony Hall, Birmingham, recording an online concert, “Baroque Passion”, which will be released for Palm Sunday. “My birthday has got very complicated,” he reflects.
The music for Palm Sunday will include Lotti’s Crucifixus, a large-scale Stabat Mater by Dominico Scarlatti, some Monteverdi Spiritual Madrigals, and a piece by Kuhnau, Bach’s predecessor in Leipzig, Tristis Est Anima Mea. The concert ends with Bach’s double-choir funeral motet Kom, Jesu, Kom.
“It ends triumphantly with ‘You are the way, the truth, the light,’ with some sort of optimism for the future, that through the struggles we’ve suffered, there will some day be relief. So it’s poignant to our current situation.”
Lockdown has made its mark personally and professionally. Skidmore and his wife Janet, who sings in Ex Cathedra, have not seen their three children or three grandchildren for more than a year. “It’s been a bit of a trauma, but, compared to other people, it’s not been so bad.”
He has also missed seeing his regular team of singers and players, and connecting with a live audience. “We’ve adapted as well as you could possibly adapt to the situation, and taken on board all the technological advances, we’ve done Zoom recordings, virtual videos, we’ve filmed live concerts, but it’s not the same as our regular activities.”
A series of three Christmas By Candlelight concerts, squeezed in before the start of the current lockdown, brought home the yearning for live music. “In one venue in particular, Kidderminster Town Hall — we’d done Hereford Cathedral and St John’s Church, Bromsgrove — but because it was a secular venue, they all stood at the end and clapped and cheered. And that for the performers, and for the audience, was a really special moment.
“You’d forgotten about the contact. Because when you record on Zoom, and make films, there’s very little feedback, and that’s one of the frustrations. We just felt elated, and were reminded how important what we do is to us and them.”
As for so many arts organisations, the pandemic’s enforced adoption of technology has connected Ex Cathedra with a new, virtual audience. “We’re looking to widen the audience base through some of the things learned through the pandemic, using technology and films and lecture recitals and workshops, to reach a wider international audience. Now it’s possible to reach the world on a laptop.”
Discovering South American music, and rescuing it from the cliff edge of historical oblivion, is another, well-established aspect of Skidmore’s reach. “I’ve been researching South American music for 20 years, and only scratched the surface.”
And the comparison with Indiana Jones fits well. “It’s more than a joke: I’ve got a collection of hats, a hat for every occasion, and I’ve certainly got Indiana Jones, a Bolivian llama wool hat. It’s very spectacular.”
This affection for dusty manuscripts began when teenage Skidmore used to go to the Victorian public library in Birmingham, looking at the collected work of composers. Now the venues are more exotic.
“In Puebla, in Mexico, in the archive in the crypt of the wonderful cathedral, original manuscripts are there. There’s lots of people working on these; so you’re not the first person necessarily to see them for a while. But they’re certainly new to Europeans often.”
He describes the process of unearthing lost music as a mixture of instinct and pot luck. The next step is reconstructing what the original performance practice was: how many singers, what sort of building it was sung in, what instruments might have been used to accompany it, and what the atmosphere of the place it was written in tells you about the music. Finally, because there is a lot of repertoire, it is a matter of choosing the pieces able to resonate with contemporary audiences and players. “It’s the pieces you reject that define the success of what you produce.”
Skidmore lives overlooking Lichfield Cathedral, but rarely attends as a worshipper. “Occasionally, I might pop into evensong, but I don’t go regularly to worship. I still feel very religious, but I feel detached from institutions.”
Acknowledging religion as his route into music, having been recruited as a chorister by his school music teacher, and having sung in Birmingham Cathedral, the chapel at Magdalen College, Oxford, and then as lay clerk at Lichfield Cathedral, he continues: “Religion informs everything I do. I’ve always been involved in worship through music. For me, worship isn’t complete without music.”
He singles out Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis as the the most significant piece. “Its extraordinary interpretation of the Mass text explores every aspect of life, and Beethoven sort of comes to terms with it. That will be the final piece I’ll conduct with Ex Cathedra. When that day comes, that would be the concert I want to finish on, if I had the energy: it’s a very demanding piece.”