An innovative way to celebrate the Shakespeare 400 anniversary. Alexander Ray Edser looks at an exciting new project for April and May in the Midlands and touring.
What is a good way, a special way, to celebrate this year’s Shakespeare 400th anniversary? Choir Ex Cathedra’s Artistic Director Jeffrey Skidmore, together with colleagues from the Shakespeare Institute and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust have the answer. And an answer that will excite concert goers and theatre goers in equal measure.
They have commissioned a new work combining the considerable talents of Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, composer Sally Beamish, and Ex Cathedra to perform it. The new work, A Shakespeare Masque, will be performed at a series of concerts beginning on the eve of Shakespeare’s birthday, 22 April.
Carol Ann Duffy’s poems (there are seven of them) will look at different aspects of Shakespeare’s life and work, but concentrate on him as a man. Written with characteristic Duffy insight and wit, weaving in quotations from Shakespeare’s works, the poems will be true to their starting point but have a contemporary twist.
Composer Sally Beamish says: ‘It’s always a challenge working with poems that have their own very strong rhythm, and it was a question of whether I went along with that or against it. It was the same thing with the music – whether I went into that world of renaissance music or not.’ She has chosen to accompany the work, each section of which is based on an Elizabethan dance, with a ‘broken consort’, a grouping of instruments popular in Shakespeare’s time.
Jeffrey Skidmore has led and conducted Ex Cathedra for almost 50 years. While his passion is clearly with the music, he enjoys an element of drama too. He explains: ‘I am very interested in the use of space and drama during concerts, surrounding the audience with musicians and moving the performers between different performing spaces. We have given staged performances of the World Parliament scene from Stockhausen’s opera Mittwoch aus Licht, and our popular Christmas Music by Candlelight concerts involve processions as part of the performance. This series of semi-staged concerts builds on these elements and takes place in six very different spaces with costumes, lighting and more. Each performance will be unique, a visual and aural event that needs to be experienced live.’
Not content with just one new work for these anniversary concerts, Skidmore and the team are adding another theatrical delight. In 1769, actor-manager David Garrick wrote an ode to celebrate Shakespeare’s jubilee. Performed in the frequently water-logged village of Stratford Upon Avon and featuring music by composer Thomas Arne (he of Rule Britannia fame) it is considered to be a key event in the development of both the town and Britain’s on-going celebration of the Bard. The musical version was performed in London, then possibly on tour; however, much of the music is lost to us. Composer Sally Beamish has re-imagined the opening and closing choruses and new instrumental parts have been written. This is likely to be the first performance of the Garrick Ode in its musical version since those original performances.
Actor, Samuel West, will play Garrick, speaking his ode to a bust of Shakespeare, as in the original performance. He says: ‘David Garrick was the first actor and manager to stake his reputation on how well, and how often, he staged and played Shakespeare. In his Ode he pays tribute to the playwright who wrote the best parts he ever got to act.’
Ex Cathedra is one of the jewels in Birmingham’s cultural crown, touring nationally and internationally, and has a host of CDs to its name too. Although created as an early music choir, and early music is one of the choir’s specialisms, Ex Cathedra has an enviable record of commissioning new work. Recent commissions have included Earthrise, by Alec Roth; written in 40 parts it was composed to partner Thomas Tallis’s Spem in Alium (the 40 part motet). More recently (2015) the choir premiered James MacMillan’s highly dramatic piece Seven Angels which charts the prophesies of the seven angels announcing the end of the world. Ex Cathedra is equally at home with Vivaldi, Purcell, Beethoven, Vaughan Williams, traditional carols, and even the odd drinking song. The choir is also bringing to our attention hitherto unknown gems of South American Baroque.
The opening concert of this series is already sold out, but there are 5 other chances to catch them: Friday 22 April, Stratford Upon Avon (Sold Out), Sunday 24 April, Birmingham Town Hall; Friday 6 May, Hereford Cathedral; Saturday 7 May, St Peter’s, Wolverhampton; Thursday 12 May, Milton Court, London; Saturday 28 May, Southwell Minster, Nottinghamshire. The premiere performance will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3. Full details and booking from venues or via www.excathedra.co.uk.
And a final point; the last section of A Shakespeare Masque is a big courante, and audiences will be invited to join in a refrain. What a joyous idea.