Culture: Sunshine Forecast for City Ensemble; with Two New CDs, Another in the Can and a Symphony Hall Concert on Sunday Featuring Two Different Orchestras, Birmingham's Ex Cathedra Is on Dazzling Form. Director Jeffrey Skidmore Brings Terry Grimley Up to Date

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Byline: Terry Grimley

It's tempting to think of Ex Cathedra's stunning new CD of music by Michel-Richard de Lalande, Music for the Sun King, as the culmination of 30 years of patient team-building.

Given an enthusiastic send-off on Radio 3's CD Review a couple of weeks ago, and rarely off the CD player since it arrived in our household, it marks the Birmingham chamber choir's debut on leading independent label Hyperion.

Having just won the coveted Gramophone Record of the Year award with the CBSO's set of complete Saint-Sans piano concertos, Hyperion already has another serious contender from Birmingham for next year's awards. But this is only one of two CDs Ex Cathedra is releasing this autumn. The other, expected imminently on its own label, is another selection from its popular 'Christmas Music by Candlelight' concerts.

If the Lalande disc reflects Ex Cathedra's exploration of the lesser-known areas of baroque music, the Christmas CD marks another extreme, including premiere recordings of no fewer than five commissions in its typically eclectic mix.

'Having five commissions on it may sound heavy going, but I think people would be surprised,' says Ex Cathedra's founder and director Jeffrey Skidmore. 'The whole thing hangs together really well.

'I'm really pleased with the Lalande disc, and so is everyone connected with it. Hyperion are interested in the whole range of things we do, and they've asked to have a copy of our Christmas CD when it comes out.'

The original idea of recording Monteverdi's complete sacred music seems to have been shelved, but Hyperion are clearly committed to the new partnership.

'They want us to do some more Lalande, they've asked us to do a Rameau record and some Latin motets by the English composer Martin Peerson. Those are not very well known at all but they are wonderful things.'

A second disc for Hyperion, recorded two weeks ago, explores the exotic repertoire of South American baroque. Composers like Araujo, Zipoli and Padilla blend native and Spanish influences, with guitars added to the usual line-up of Ex Cathedra's baroque orchestra. A third disc will be devoted to Charpentier.

'It's just been absolutely frantic since the summer,' says Skidmore. 'ArtsFest was early, then we did The Indian Queen and I was absolutely thrilled with that. Then our educational project African Sanctus in Symphony Hall went really well. There were so many good aspects to that - Kingstanding Special School signed it.'

Events like these show how difficult it is these days to describe Ex Cathedra simply as a choir, with its integral baroque orchestra, still smaller 'Consort' vocal ensemble and educational work which extends seamlessly from performances.

'It's what we're all about,' says Skidmore. 'I'd love to be able to sell a project like African Sanctus to London. I have mentioned it to Nick Kenyon in particular for a future Prom.'

Early in 2004 Ex Cathedra will be performing Stravinsky's Les Noces, and Skidmore would like to combine it with Fyfe Hutchins' A Stray Dog for Congratulations, commis-sioned for an educational project in Lichfield this summer, which combines three children's choirs with two pianos and percussion.

'That says everything about our work,' says Skidmore. 'The only thing it doesn't say is early music.'

The 2002/3 season continues this Sunday at Symphony Hall, with what at first sight might seem a curious pairing of Lalande's De Profundis and the much more familiar (and much later) Faur Requiem. …