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Shakespeare’s Odes (Susan Elkin reviews)

Ex Cathedra, Milton Court, 14 May 2016

One of a series of imaginative Ex Cathedra concerts to mark Shakespeare400, this event was an interesting and entertaining blend of words and music.

The first half consisted of an account of an ode written by David Garrick in 1769 for the first ever Shakespeare jubilee. Reconstructed with music by Henry Purcell and choruses by Sally Beamish, it’s a piece which is joyfully celebratory. Actor Samuel West, in Georgian costume, played Garrick with warmth and wit, his contributions seamlessly linking the musical items. Ex Cathedra makes a wonderfully rich sound because it’s a small group most of whose members are accomplished soloists so it’s in the same league as The Sixteen or the BBC Singers. And Jeffery Skidmore who founded the choir in 1969, and still directs it, also drew an elegantly supportive sound from a trio of original instruments including bass viol. Soloists emerged to sing certain numbers with Jeremy Budd being delightfully entertaining as Falstaff and there was some rivetingly good singing from Katie Trethewey.

After the interval came The Shakespeare Masque, a new work commissioned by Ex Cathedra from Sally Beamish and current Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy. It’s a community piece and Ex Cathedra has worked with local primary school children in each of the venues where it has performed this concert. At Milton Court the children came from Manorfield, Arnhem Wharf and John Scurr primary schools and were placed in the gallery above the stage. They’d clearly been well trained and contributed in a professional manner. Young people from the regular “academies” which Ex Cathedra runs to ensure that keen young singers get the opportunity to improve their skills were on the stage itself.

Also on stage was a larger six piece original instrument band and the score required plenty of colourful and deft solo work, especially for William Lyons leading on flute and recorder; for David Miller on lute and Emilia Benjamin on treble viol. Behind all this was the core Ex Cathedra choir providing ensemble with occasional solo spots. The whole thing was well stage managed with a lot of moving about and, yes it reminded me of Britten’s Noye’s Fludde which is, I gather, exactly what Skidmore intended – complete even to a bit of audience participation which we had to practise before the work began.

As for the sound, the music is often ebullient, even witty in places. Elsewhere it is often haunting and ethereal especially in the twelfth number “Under the Mulberry Tree”.

Originally published by Lark Reviews:

Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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