As part of Baroque Month, Bachtrack has been quizzing leading Baroque ensembles around the globe about the challenges of running a period instrument ensemble and how to build new audiences for their work. We also ask for some Baroque recommendations to introduce new listeners and which lesser-known composer they think deserves greater notice.

Ex Cathedra is probably best known outside its home city of Birmingham for its performances and recordings of Latin American Baroque and French Baroque music, but it is an ensemble which performs repertoire from the Renaissance to Stockhausen, and commissions new choral music. General Manager of Ex Cathedra, Peter Trethewey, answers our Baroque Inquisition.

Ex Cathedra © Paul Arthur
Ex Cathedra
© Paul Arthur

1. What is one of the main challenges of running a period ensemble today?  

A challenge we relish is to develop the choral repertoire: to research hidden gems, such as our forthcoming recording of music from Brazil; to commission new music; and to seek fresh insights into a wide range of repertoire – whether Bach, Rameau or Rachmaninov. The research disciplines translate from our historically-informed performances and are applied to everything we perform.  Securing funding for all our work remains a huge challenge too, of course, particularly in this ongoing period of uncertainty over public funding in the UK and we are indebted to all our supporters.

2. How do you bring in new audiences?

The range and diversity of our repertoire is very important, encouraging audiences who attend our performances of Bach and Handel to come and hear us perform something less well-known, such as a forthcoming programme of music by Lalande written for The Sun King at Versailles, or a recent, sold-out concert of Vespers music by Rovetta.  Collaborations can bring new audiences too, whether they are traditional collaborations with other music organisations and venues like Symphony Hall and Town Hall, where we are resident, or unusual collaborations like our staged performance of Durufle's Requiem with three dance companies given last May as part of International Dance Festival Birmingham, or Oliver Beer’s Resonances project in the stairwell of a Birmingham carpark. This year we are looking forward to promoting concerts for the first time at Milton Court in London, Southwell Minster and Hereford Cathedral, where we’ll be performing Elizabethan Christmas music.

Artistic Director Jeffrey Skidmore © operaomnia
Artistic Director Jeffrey Skidmore
© operaomnia


3. What piece would you recommend to introduce listeners to Baroque music?

A very difficult question because everyone responds differently to different repertoire, but from the choral repertoire I’d suggest period performances of Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s St Matthew Passion. We’re performing both at Symphony Hall this season! There are vibrant and exciting movements that almost everyone will know – like the “Hallelujah Chorus” – but also many heart-rendingly beautiful arias. 

4. Which lesser-known Baroque composer would you like to hear performed more often and why?

There is a wealth of stunning music from the French Baroque that deserves to be much better known and performed far more frequently. Our recent CD A French Baroque Diva: Arias for Marie Fel with Carolyn Sampson includes treasures by Rameau, Lacoste, Rousseau, Mondonville and Lalande. If I personally had to pick one of these composers it would be Michel-Richard de Lalande (1657-1726), whose grands motets for the Versailles court of Louis XIV, the Sun King, set the texts of the psalms and liturgy with a breadth of emotion that ranges from dazzling brilliance to gorgeously long, plaintive solo lines.  Lalande’s grands motets call for quite a large orchestra, choir and soloists so are fairly expensive to perform, and performers need to learn the specific style of performance which takes time but is essential. Having performed and recorded his music over many years, we’re looking forward to returning to Lalande with a concert that includes his settings of the Te Deum and De profundis to open our 2014-15 season (12 Oct).

5. What is your musical guilty pleasure? (For example, “when I’m not performing/listening to Heinrich Biber, I’m actually listening to Justin Bieber…”)

It’s not a guilty pleasure as such, but I love to moonlight and sing choral Evensong when I get chance, which is sadly increasingly rare. 

6. Which section of the ensemble is first to the bar after a performance?

I’m usually still at the venue long after the concert, arriving in the pub as they begin to drift away! If the question was who stays in the pub longest after a concert...  Our singers and instrumentalists travel quite significant distances to rehearse and perform with us, some travelling almost 200 miles, so many have long journeys home afterwards, but they’re a wonderful group of people, as well as very talented musicians, and on the occasions that we are able to socialize it is always a lot of fun.

7. What are your top 5 Baroque works?

Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers


Bach's St John Passion


Bach's St Matthew Passion


Bach's Mass in B Minor


Lalande Te Deum


Ex Cathedra was founded in 1969 by artistic director and conductor Jeffrey Skidmore and comprises chamber choir, vocal Consort, period instrument orchestra and a substantial education programme. They seek to nurture young singers through their children’s choirs, and to create opportunities and support young professional singers as they start their career.  Ex Cathedra also engage with thousands of adults and children each year in schools, community and hospital environments, with projects like Singing Playgrounds and Singing Medicine which are 10 years old this year.