Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir review

A GRIPPING WORLD PREMIERE FROM LIZ JOHNSON


ROYAL BIRMINGHAM CONSERVATOIRE CHAMBER CHOIR
Royal Birmingham Conservatoire *****
The links between Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and the world-renowned Ex Cathedra are strong and rewarding, and the connection is Jeffrey Skidmore, artistic director of the latter and inspiring coach at the former.
As he explained before the concert began, several of the singers in the RBC Chamber Choir are members of Ex Cathedra, and Lucy Russell leads both the RBC Baroque Orchestra and the Ex Cathedra Baroque Orchestra. But what he was too modest to point out, and it takes this review to attest it, this concert was also a prime example of how seamless and well-judged is Skidmore's programme-planning, subtle links underpinning every element.
There was an Advent theme underlying all these offerings flowing one into the other (blessedly, no interval), an expectant plainchant leading into Bach's cantata Nun komm der Heiden Heiland, with later a wonderfully spatial and evocative Advent Responsory from the late Richard Marlow, and ending with another Bach cantata Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme.
In all these offerings Skidmore maintained flowing tempi, jaunted a springy orchestra and made space for eloquent instrumental obbligati, not least from Russell and oboist Gail Hennessey. And the student vocal soloists were uniformly outstanding.
And at the heart of this fascinating amalgam was the world premiere of Liz Johnson's Gentle Flame Cantata, a passionate engagement with the Advent theme of knocking at the door. This 25-minute work (it seems to fly by) collates texts from various knockers at the door, not least environmentalist Greta Thunberg knocking the heads of complacent do-nothings together, and centring on the great conductor Kurt Masur's iconic invitation to Stasi-threatened demonstrators to take refuge in his Leipzig Gewandhaus during the collapse of the Iron Curtain.
This is a constantly gripping work, its choral textures and devices always arresting and communicative, its use of this Bachian orchestra colourful and resourceful, its links with Nun komm der Heiden Heiland unobtrusive but cogent, and the Holstian vision of its concluding movement, an extended setting of Thunberg's "You have stolen my childhood" making a perfect ending. I am told there is a further movement in the pipeline, but I hope Johnson abandons the idea. This finale is perfect.
Skidmore's forces performed this wonderful piece with skill and commitment, and Samantha Lewis was the undemonstratively eloquent mezzo soloist. Three Choirs programmers, this is one for you.
Christopher Morley

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