On Saturday night Brighton Dome plays host to a special Easter-themed classical concert. EDWIN GILSON found out more from the man behind the music

IT IS often said that the tradition of Easter has been lost somewhere amid Cadbury’s-based commercialism and confused symbolism.

But there is a great chance to immerse yourself in the true spirit of the season on Saturday night, when the Brighton Festival Chorus and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra will team up to perform three classical pieces with a religious focus.

James Morgan, conductor with the BFC, who are celebrating their 50th anniversary this year, has a history in choral music having been employed as a chorister at Westminster cathedral.

This experience inspired him to convert compositions usually heard in churches to the concert hall, making for performances that combine the intimacy and beauty of a choir with the amplified dynamics of an orchestra.

James is also known for his work with popular singers such as Jamie Cullum, Katie Melua and this week’s Guide cover star Katherine Jenkins, whose debut album Premiere he co-produced. A few years ago James was diagnosed with Young Onset Parkinson’s, but he says it hasn’t “interrupted his career” to a debilitating degree (more on this later).

He will lead the BFC and RPO as they tackle three atmospheric numbers: Benjamin Britten’s Missa Brevis, Maurice Durufle’s Requiem and Cruxifixus, which has been performed by Lotti, Cherubini, Bach and Vivaldi at various points. It’s an ambitious event, but James says he and his ensemble were driven by the desire to do justice to the pieces and prove that they can thrive in a large auditorium.

Take Missa Brevis, for instance. “It’s an amazing piece of music but not many people know it because it has never gone to the concert hall,” says James.

“It struck us as a lovely idea to take it out of the church so that people who aren’t churchgoers can hear it. In the BFC we’ve often chosen to delve into the church repertoire because there is so much brilliant music written for that setting.”

The BFC got permission from Benjamin Britten’s estate to perform the composition.

While part of James’s aim was to showcase religiously-leaning music to a potentially atheist audience, he says also that Requiem will “sit beautifully with those of a Christian bent”. The conductor adds that there “isn’t much blood and thunder to the piece – it’s very contemplative”.

The circumstance behind the making of Requiem are interesting, particularly as it seems at odds with the serenity of Durufle’s work. It was written over six years, five of which coincided with the Second World War.

“He was in Paris as the bombs were going off all around him,” says James. “There are only occasional references to that, though. It’s not generally angst-ridden but it’s heart-rending and emotional. Maybe his work was an antidote to everything else happening.”

Durufle was influenced by Gregorian chanting from the 14th century, the first known instance of what we would now call melody. BFC’s reworking of the composition features their own take on this ancient mode of music, and James says it’s enough to “make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck”.

“There’s a moment where the organ is going full blast and the choir is singing this centuries-old chant – it’s incredible,” adds the conductor.

As for the piece the whole event is named after, Cruxifixus, James and his musical partner Juliette Pochin drew on four different versions of the song when developing their own unique take on it.

The original composer, Antonio Lotti, was a Venetian who lived in the 17th century, and, according to James, a fairly unremarkable musician. Starting as a singer in a choir, he eventually became a songwriter.

“He made loads of stuff but I’m afraid to say none of it is particularly inspiring,” says James. Crucifixus was by far his most notable achievement, his “moment in the sun”.

The biggest endorsement of the work was that it was later adapted by two of the most famous classical music pioneers – Bach and Vivaldi. James reckons Bach’s is the finest example of Crucifixus.

The grand scale of this concert is a fitting way to mark the BFC’s fiftieth anniversary, and there are other treats coming soon too.

The group are performing Belshazzar’s Feast as part of the Brighton Festival, half a century on from when they first played the composition for the 1968 festival. From that point the BFC has been a consistent part of the arts event, often closing the programme.

This May they are also staging War Requiem to commemorate another anniversary – the ceasefire of the First World War.

It will be played “open book”, meaning the musicians will recite the piece from memory.

“There’s something about taking their printed copies away that increases the sense of occasion,” says James. “I despair of people’s heads being buried in their books so they can’t communicate with the audience.

“You’d be surprised how much different it makes to the performance.”

In recent years James has had to navigate Young Onset Parkinson’s, a disorder which you would assume would severely impair his ability to score and conduct concerts. Happily, he says he has learnt how to live with the condition and treat it with proper care.

“I’m lucky in that so far I’ve managed to work without interruptions,” he says.

“It does bring challenges – my left hand feels as though I have an oven glove on, and turning pages when you conduct can be tricky.

“I suffer from cramps and back spasms, so staying in one place can also be difficult. Fortunately with medication and lots of exercise I have continued to work and will keep doing so.”

James admits, however, that “it is a constant battle to keep my hand moving and my body from falling apart on the podium”.

This celebratory year with the BFC is the latest in a long line of achievements for James, one of which was producing Katherine Jenkins’ debut album Premiere. The conductor has been delighted to see how her “career has gone from strength to strength” thereafter. He says he enjoys working with artists of all description – if their work is good enough.

“In the case of Jamie [Cullum] and Katie [Melua], they are brilliant at what they do. It doesn’t matter what genre it is.”

If you’re looking for an authentic – not to mention stimulating – experience on Easter weekend then look no further than the concert James and company have poured their heart and soul into.

While less and less people might fully appreciate the spiritual significance of Easter, Cruxifixus will provide a soul-enriching reminder.

Brighton Festival Chorus and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra: Crucifixus. Saturday 7.30pm, brightondome.org