Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Talking to British conductor Jeffrey Skidmore

On June 16th 2014, I met with Jeffrey Skidmore in Monteconero, Sirolo (Italy). Jeffrey Skidmore is one of England’s most highly regarded conductors, known for exciting programming that is both challenging and accessible. Skidmore read music at Magdalen College, Oxford, then returning to his native Birmingham to lead “Ex Cathedra”, an internationally acclaimed choir and early music ensemble, which he continues to lead today.

PH: Maestro Skidmore, what are your early musical memories?

Jeffrey Skidmore: When I was perhaps eight years, a pupil at our local Birmingham primary school, I remember the teacher calling me out to the front of the class at the end of a lesson and requesting I sing a song. Another memory: we had a radio at home – one of those big boxes; I remember tuning in and hearing King’s College Choir (Cambridge) and being mesmerized by that sort of sound.

PH: Are you from a musical family?

JS: There were no trained- or professional musicians in the family. But I think all my family is very musical. Both my parents sang beautifully. They had an ear for music, as did my brothers. I had the fortune of meeting the right people and having some training. But it was not quite as easy as that.

PH: Can you explain that?

JS: The family immigrated to America in the late 1960s. My younger brother, now a scientist working in a hospital there, would have loved to have become a professional musician; he is very musical and plays the classical guitar, but he just did not have the right opportunities. My wife is a musician. We met at Oxford. Our children are very musical. My son is a professional ‘cellist on the London music scene.

PH: Let’s go to your early musical training.

JS: In those days, school children received free music lessons in England. Many of those teaching us were members of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. I was supplied with a violin and started having violin lessons at school. I did not like it very much. I then started having trumpet lessons with a fantastic teacher who was a trombonist in the CBSO. I also had recorder lessons.

PH: Was it to be the piano for you?

JS: No. But I was considered a musical child and it was a physics teacher from school who decided to give me some keyboard lessons. A local organist gave me free piano- and organ lessons. The school music teacher, Walter Jennings, approached my parents to say I needed to have a piano at home. My family, including two brothers and a sister, had to put up with my practicing. I still use the piano today for reading scores.

When I went to grammar (secondary) school, all the class sang in music lessons. We were also each requested to sing on our own. We did not know we were being auditioned; Walter Jennings, the teacher, was the local parish church choir master. I think I was the only pupil interested when he talked about the Reformation and counterpoint, the concerto, Venice and cori spezzati. In fact, I was all ears. Understanding all that background was becoming very important to me. He asked me if I would like to be a chorister. There were both boys and girls in the choir, so, in addition to the music and the music teacher, there was that extra attraction of the girls! Now retired, Jennings is still a friend. He and his wife come to our Ex Cathedra concerts.

PH: So was singing what attracted you in all these musical activities?

JS: Yes. I did come to realize that singing was the thing I loved and wanted to do. When I was 16, my parents emigrated to America. I went there too, but came back the UK and lived with friends. This was the end of the ‘60s, the time of “flower power” and “freedom”, a great t time for an adolescent male to be on his own, with no parental rules or regulations, and it suited me to be an independent spirit. By then I knew I wanted to become a singer.

PH: What were your first steps into the singing profession?

JS: I was 17 and went to audition as a professional singer in the Birmingham Cathedral Choir. The organist and choir master was Roy Massey, at the time certainly one of the best organists in the country. He accepted me and inspired me to go even further with choral training and discipline. From there, I got a choral scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford.

PH: Who were the people who influenced you most in Oxford?

JS: I trained under Bernard Rose, one of the giants of English choral music - a great musician and teacher and a very interesting man. And then there was David Wulstan, who started a group called “The Clerkes of Oxenford”. That one group started the whole business really: all the singers passing through the Oxford tradition have sung in this ensemble. From that one group “The Tallis Scholars”, “The Hilliard Ensemble”, “The Sixteen” and others emerged.

PH: Who else has been an influence on your musical life?

JS: There have been lots and lots of other people…in all sorts of personal ways: I have learned much from people I sang with as a young singer in Birmingham Cathedral, from people I sang with in Oxford, and from everyone who has sung in Ex Cathedra.

PH: Did “Ex Cathedra” originate on your return to Birmingham?

JS: No. We had started before that, in my gap year. When I was accepted at Oxford, I remember writing to David Wulstan there. I had heard recordings of his group. Wulstan wrote back asking if I would like to sing with them. I told him I had my own group (Ex Cathedra) but that I would like to sing with his ensemble. “The Clerkes of Oxenford” was one of the most influential early music groups in England at that time.

PH: Did you run any groups of your own in Oxford?

JS: Yes. As a male alto, I have also sung and soloed in many groups and consorts, but I also started a consort of singers in my first year at Oxford. Emma Kirkby was a soprano in it, Paul Elliott was the tenor; countertenor David James was also a member – all big stars of the future.
I graduated from Oxford University 1973-1974.

PH: And then you returned to Birmingham.

JS: Yes. I went back to Birmingham and took a job as a professional singer at Lichfield Cathedral, which is in a very beautiful Gothic town just outside Birmingham, and I was happy to go back and continue developing “Ex Cathedra”.

PH: Why Birmingham?

JS: It is my home town, a wonderful city, but not a very “popular” town in a sort of way. Birmingham is a young city, only 100 years old as a city, but very vibrant, with a focus on learning and education and it has a wealth of wonderful venues. There are many beautiful churches and the council has invested a lot of money in regenerating the city. There is Birmingham Cathedral (built in 1715), a very small, beautiful cathedral and the only Baroque cathedral in England. There is St. Paul’s Church in the Jewellery Quarter and the Oratory, the latter founded by Cardinal Newman and built in the 19th century. It is a beautiful marble box with absolutely perfect acoustics. And then we have the Town Hall, which was built for the Birmingham Triennial Music Festival, a major choral festival which existed from 1784 to 1912; this venue was a choral centre in the 19th- and early 20th centuries. Some major works were written to be performed at the Birmingham Town Hall, including Mendelssohn’s “Elijah”, Dvorak’s “Stabat Mater” and Elgar’s “The Dream of Gerontius”. Then, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the council built Symphony Hall, a modern concert hall, considered by some as having the best acoustic in the world. It was built for Sir Simon Rattle, who came to conduct the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

PH: Let’s get back to Ex Cathedra and how it has developed over the years.

JS: A lot of years of development! It has been going for the last 45 years. Ex Cathedra was sort-of amateur to start with, with friends taking part because we loved doing this music. Then there came the point where I was so busy I had to decide whether to give up teaching and do full-time freelance conducting. That’s what I eventually did in the early ‘90s and I have been doing it ever since. Ex Cathedra consists mostly of singers; we have cooperated with such groups as Fretwork, His Majesty’s Sagbutts and Cornetts, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, The Hanover Band, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, etc. At one stage we also formed our own period instrument orchestra – the Ex Cathedra Baroque Orchestra - the first period instrument orchestra in England outside of London. All the leading players of the time have played with- or led this orchestra at some stage – John Holloway, Simon Standage, Catherine Mackintosh and eventually Micaela ‘Mica’ Comberti, who became our leader. Mica was a wonderful artist. After playing second violin in “English Concert” and second violin in the Salomon Quartet, this was her opportunity to be leader and she accepted the role happily. For 20 years, we did some wonderful work together, with lots of recordings, and we explored much repertoire that nobody else was doing, in particular, French Baroque music. We were the first group in England to really tackle that style. Nobody was trained to do French Baroque and, even today, people are slightly intimidated by French Baroque style: there is so much to learn, with so many stylistic elements. (My son plays ‘cello in the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Last year, they performed Rameau’s “Hippolyte et Aricie” at Glyndebourne, conducted by William Christie. I went to a lot of the rehearsals and to the performance and observed how even an orchestra of that sort of level had to learn how to play French Baroque music in style.) One of the high points for Ex Cathedra and myself was the ensemble’s 40th anniversary in 2010. For that we performed Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” and Elgar’s “Dream of Gerontius”, all with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. We were defining our Birmingham heritage.

PH: Where does Ex Cathedra mostly perform?

JS: We are based in Birmingham and also do concerts outside of the town. The Midlands has some excellent venues. This is the heart of England. People just do not know the depth and wealth of what is going on there.

PH: You have mentioned the fact that you love consort work.

JS: Yes. In Ex Cathedra, we also started a small consort of our own called “Le Nuove Musiche” to perform works like Monteverdi madrigals with two violins and continuo, etc. – all that kind of early 17th century repertoire. I used to sing and direct it from the alto voice.

PH: And as time went on?

JS: I did more and more conducting and worked with other groups…and then stopped performing. I was teaching and my voice was not in very good shape.

PH: And on the subject of teaching…

JS: Teaching is what I do. Everything I do is teaching. I suppose because I had some inspirational teachers I feel it is my role to pass on what I know to other people. When I left Oxford University I wanted to be a teacher. So I taught music in various schools in Birmingham, in the Midlands and Staffordshire…real cutting edge, hard core secondary school teaching, dealing with all sorts of children. Some were very interested, some were not. But I was a “missionary”: I wanted to convert them, to show them what I was taught to see. It was very, very hard work, but I had some great times. It was a tough job, but I am glad I did it and it changed the way I see the music business. I enjoy working with the best musicians and also with amateurs, the challenge being to give each what they need. In fact, it is the same process as teaching children at school: you take them on a journey and try to make things better or more interesting. So I am quite happy to work at any level with any people, as long as there is a “journey”. I have been very lucky to accompany singers on lots of journeys.

PH: Talking of journeys, you mentioned having spent time in South America.

JS: Yes. I have had several trips to Mexico, Bolivia and Brazil to research music there.

PH: What kind of music?

JS: Colonial music. Some of it is Baroque, some late Renaissance and some early Classical. Brazil’s music is largely early Classical repertoire and early Romantic, whereas there is late Renaissance and early Baroque music to be found in Bolivia and also in Mexico. There is some marvellous music in South America and I have had the pleasure of meeting some wonderful people there. There is so much material to discover there but there are also a lot of very talented people working on that repertoire. Because of all the political upheaval in South America, and with Europe dominating, people have denigrated colonial music, but now, with time, they are realizing that together with some really bad things going on in the region – slavery and exploitation – there were also a lot of good things and, most importantly, that these good things also form a part of their history. There is some excellent music from South America which we are beginning to appreciate.

PH: Do you see yourself as a musicologist?

JS: I’d like to think I do those “musicological things”. I am not just a musicologist. I know a lot of very distinguished musicologists. My musicological enquiry helps me understand performance issues. And because I know something about musicology I know the right questions to ask, what the issues are, what instruments and temperaments to use, etc. So musicology is a very important part of what I do. I am a “performing musicologist” if you like.

PH: How does this work tie in with your work with Ex Cathedra?

JS: In clarity of style. I think one of the things that Ex Cathedra is good at is getting style right. Our Renaissance music does not sound like our Baroque music and not like our Classical music. We really get inside style. I hear a lot of groups for which everything sounds the same. Style is important.

PH: Does contemporary music play a role in your professional life?

JS: A massive role. Ex Cathedra has made several CDs of contemporary music and actually commissions one or two new works every year! For next year, a leading Scottish composer, James McMillan, is composing an oratorio for us. And in 2016, Sally Beamish, a famous British composer, is writing us a new setting to a Shakespeare ode for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. So we perform a lot of modern music.

PH: Can you pick out one of your CDs of modern music?

JS: Yes. We made a CD of music by Alec Roth (UK). He wrote a 40-part motet for us (based on that of Tallis) about moon landings – a sensational piece of music. When you are singing it or listening to it, it sounds as if you are floating in space.

PH: Let’s go to Ex Cathedra’s recent live performances of contemporary music.

JS: In 2013 we did Stockhausen at the BBC Proms (an eight-week London summer festival), which surprised everybody; we received world coverage, and it was glowing! The previous year, we joined the Birmingham Opera to perform Stockhausen’s “Mittwoch aus Licht” (Wednesday from Light), as part of the Olympic Games cultural celebrations. Stockhausen wrote an opera for each day of the week. This one has five acts. Our scene “Welt Parlament” (World Parliament), written for 36 singers, consisted of 45 minutes of a cappella singing. It is phenomenally difficult but the project was well funded, so we had a lot of rehearsals. When we began working on it, all of us hated Stockhausen. We found it unbearable. By the end of the process we absolutely loved it. It ended up being one of those life-changing musical experiences!

PH: It must be very different working with living composers and their music.

JS: Yes. For me, working with living composers gives one understanding of how they themselves think and work. You can then apply that to composers who are dead, even to the music of a composer like William Byrd, about whom we do not know much. We try to work out what the composer intended and then we endeavor to recreate that.

PH: What is most important for you when performing modern music?

JS: Beauty of sound. Modern music must be performed beautifully, not just correctly. People sometimes learn the notes of these works (a task difficult in itself) and, especially when it comes to singing, the performers may not necessarily have beautiful voices. If you do it with beautiful voices, the music becomes much more accessible.

PH: Do you compose?

JS: I used to compose a lot when I was 17 and 18 and still have those early pieces at home. Then I stopped because it took too much time but also because it was very personal. I do arranging and quite a lot of editing of French Baroque music and Renaissance repertoire. But something in my mind thinks that when I start to slow down, I might well start doing some composing again. I have things going on in my head but I need time – composing takes me a long time to do.

PH: What are your future performance plans?

JS: What I really want to do is return to English music. You really need to do your own music. You can only really get inside it if you are of that nationality. I think there is still a lot to discover about Purcell. His music has been performed and recorded a lot. For me, he brings together English Renaissance polyphony and Italian music. So I am hoping to “say something new” about Purcell. That is one of my aims. I also want to do a lot more French Baroque music. Lalande, for example, Louis XIV’s favorite composer, wrote some 60 “grands motets” that have not all yet been performed. This is strange, wonderful music and it suits Ex Cathedra. And the other thing is that I am planning a kind of succession: I want to have an influence on young conductors, to give them an opportunity and hopefully, over the next years, to find the right person to take over from me. I am not looking for a clone, but for someone who can take us in new directions yet still maintain Ex Cathedra’s range of educational work and interest in contemporary- and old music; we have amateur- and professional singers and we work with students. It should be someone – a very special person - who will keep all of that going.

PH: When it is not music, what interests you?

JS: I like lots of things: travel, food, wine, cooking, sport. I play less sport nowadays but still enjoy cycling and swimming. I like gardening and I read as much as I can.

PH: What do you think you will write in your memoirs one day?

JS: Something like… “I am my own man”. It is very important to me to do what I want to do and I need to be free to do that. I have been fortunate to be able to have control over what I want to do. Being in Birmingham has given me that freedom: I have been able to experiment and do repertoire that other people could not really afford to do. We are quite well funded in Birmingham, so I have been able to “carve out” a musical life there due to that freedom.

PH: Jeffrey, this has been very interesting. Many thanks for giving of your time.