Birmingham’s world-class choir Ex Cathedra is to mark Remembrance Sunday with a concert of music that puts the case for peace, political freedom, compassion for our fellow human beings and the fight against torture. 

Directed by Jeffrey Skidmore, ‘Songs of Protest’ at Town Hall Birmingham on Sunday 13 November, includes the world premieres of Sally Beamish’s A Knock on the Door, and Alec Roth’s The Peace of the Night, alongside works by John Joubert and Sir James MacMillan.  All four composers have developed a unique relationship with Ex Cathedra over the years. 

This challenging subject matter asks uncomfortable but compelling questions about how each of us might act in times of war, something that sadly remains every bit as relevant today.

A major new work by Sally Beamish, A Knock on the Door takes a brand new text by Peter Thomson that considers the complex relationship between captive and torturer and the profound impact on both.  The piece is scored for two choirs, representing the victims and their oppressors (who switch roles at the end of the piece), keyboard and recorded soundtrack.  

Sally Beamish says, “An important factor was to emphasise that torture causes deep and lasting damage both to the victim and to the perpetrator, and that all humans are vulnerable to finding themselves in circumstances where they might become either victim or oppressor.”

Peter Thomson shared the text with former Beirut hostage John McCarthy, who was held in captivity for five years from 1986.  

“The interplay between the two choirs really does create the horrible tension between victim and torturer”

John McCarthy comments,I think A Knock on the Door is truly powerful.  The interplay between the two choirs really does create the horrible tension between victim and torturer … and the detail of what happens in torture chambers – a very vivid picture drawn with, in fact, very few words.”  He continues, “I was very moved, the rhythms suggesting such menace and fear, contempt and desperation, and ultimately something softer and unifying as the choirs find harmony of thoughts.”

A Knock on the Door was commissioned by the Quaker Concern for the Abolition of Torture (Q-CAT).  It is the second work by Sally Beamish to be premiered by Ex Cathedra, following A Shakespeare Masque in 2016.

Also receiving its world premiere in the concert is The Peace of the Night, Alec Roth’s latest work in a long and fruitful collaboration as Ex Cathedra’s composer in residence.   The Peace of the Night previews a project with German group Ensemble Nobiles who are commissioning a series of pieces ahead of the 80th anniversary of the end of World War II, with strong connections to Dietrich Bonnhoeffer, a prisoner of war who was killed in a concentration camp shortly before the war ended. 

John Joubert’s South of the Line sets Boer War poems by Thomas Hardy which agonise over man’s inhumanity to man.  Writing for combinations of chorus and solo voices, piano and percussion, Joubert’s selection of five texts includes Drummer Hodge and A Christmas Ghost Story.  Born in South Africa, Joubert lived for much of his life in Moseley, Birmingham, and was the city’s pre-eminent composer until his death in 2019.  He wrote a series of pieces for Ex Cathedra over many years, including South of the Line in 1985 to celebrate the opening of the former Adrian Boult Hall.  

In Cantos sagrados, James MacMillan protests about political repression in Latin America and the ‘disappearance’ of political prisoners.  Combining poetry with traditional religious texts, MacMillan described his intention to create something “both timeless and contemporary, both sacred and secular”.  One of Britain’s most noted composers, MacMillan’s music was recently heard at the funeral of HM The Queen.  He wrote the carol And lo, the Angel of the Lord for Ex Cathedra’s 40th anniversary in 2009 and the oratorio Seven Angels in 2015.

“The themes of all the works in this concert are serious but they are also aspirational in beauty and optimism,” says Jeffrey Skidmore, Founder and Artistic Director of Ex Cathedra.  “Music expresses our deepest thoughts and has the power to change the way we think. Songs of Protest puts the case for peace, political freedom, compassion for our fellow human beings and the fight against torture. It will be profoundly moving.”

In a FREE pre-concert performance at 3pm – ‘Songs of Protest and Hope’ – Ex Cathedra’s Academy of Vocal Music youth choirs will perform an excerpt from Cecilia McDowall’s A Girl from Aleppo and a selection of their own compositions.  All are welcome.

Ex Cathedra with soloists Imogen Russell (soprano) and Lawrence White (baritone), are joined by Backbeat Percussion Quartet for Songs of Protest at Town Hall Birmingham on Sunday 13 November (4pm).  Free pre-concert performance by Ex Cathedra’s Academy of Vocal Music at 3pm.  Tickets from www.excathedra.co.uk

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