Celebration of the century

A Boy Was Born

Ex Cathedra

Birmingham Town Hall


IT WILL be difficult for any music-lovers to avoid Benjamin Britten this year as venues up and down the country celebrate the centenary of the composer's birth.

And when Britten could create music as beautiful as this, why would we want to?

Birmingham's Ex Cathedra Choir launched the city's own Britten 100 series which will feature a host of talent including City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, tenor Ian Bostridge, the Belcea Quartet and pianists Angela Hewitt and Steven Osborne.

Not surprisingly, this concert focussed on Britten's choral works – taking us right through his career from his teenage years with A Hymn to the Virgin through to the height of his fame with Gloriana, written to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

What was immediately clear was Britten's great understanding and dexterity with the choral form of music. No one style dominates as his work moves from simple repetitive melodies to incredibly complex multi-layered harmonies.

Britten's subject matter is also fascinating. Digging deep into English poetry and traditional music, he could then draw on much more contemporary sources including verse by his great friend W H Auden.

Ex Cathedra, who have become one of the UK's leading choirs, successfully brought out the heart of Britten's music, so that we felt its place in a heritage of spiritual music and yet could also experience it pushing the boundaries of these traditions.

So, for example, in Rejoice in the Lamb, Britten's song of praise takes the poetry of Christopher Smart as its basis and examines the different ways of voicing that praise. The chorus builds up the momentum, evoking Biblical figures like Daniel and David and calling on music itself to glorify God while the soloists take us back to simple nature, showing how animals and flowers reflect that glory.

Works like A Boy Was Born ask for a great deal from a choir and yet Ex Cathedra, directed by Jeffrey Skidmore, more than rose to the challenge  as well as showcasing talent from the youngsters in its Academy of Vocal Music.

They were greatly helped by Alexander Mason on the Town Hall's organ so that the combination of song and instrument filled the hall, blowing away any cobwebs left over from the New Year.

This concert was a splendid introduction to Britten 100. While many towns and cities will be aiming to celebrate the centenary it will be interesting to see how many do it as well and as broadly as Birmingham.

Diane Parkes 


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