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In the last of his blogs, Paul Cutts reflects on the extraordinary final leg of The Bach Choir’s tour – performances of Bach’s St Matthew Passion in Hong Kong.
If there’s one piece associated with The Bach Choir, it’s the St Matthew Passion. The Choir’s annual English-language mounting of this Meisterwerk for more than eight decades is nothing short of a musical institution in the UK. Indeed, it was our 2011 St Matthew that prompted our China tour; the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra (HKPO) director of operations was in London and attended the Royal Festival Hall performance. The impression we made led to an invitation to perform the work with the HKPO and its Dutch music director Jaap van Zweden.
Hong Kong represented the culmination of six concentrated months learning the Passion in its original language, with expert German coaching from John Dunston and extra all-day Saturday rehearsals. It’s always challenging to work with a new conductor – and Maestro van Zweden is known for his individual interpretations, baroque-influenced phrasing and edge-of-your-seat tempi. The first rehearsal brought into sharp focus just how demanding – and exhilarating – an experience this was going to be. With our first Good Friday performance also being broadcast live on Hong Kong Radio 4 (the equivalent of our BBC Radio 3), we were feeling an unusual degree of pressure.
Over the course of the next four days of rehearsals, we grew to respect hugely van Zweden’s distinctive vision for the work. In turn, the maestro grew to admire our flexibility and musical responsiveness; at one point he called us ‘the Ferrari of choruses’. With a stellar line-up of soloists – including British talents Christopher Maltman and Jennifer Johnston (a regular with The Bach Choir) – we knew these were going to be special performances. Nothing quite prepared us however for the reception of two full houses at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre. A rapt audience erupted into almost 10 minutes of applause at the end of each performance and HK Radio 4 rebroadcast the Good Friday concert in full on Wednesday 23 April.
After such a demanding and intensive schedule, the Choir deserved to unwind. The British Council, which had already hosted a private dinner for us in Shanghai, pulled out the stops again in Hong Kong, funding a drinks reception for the whole choir, orchestra, soloists and supporters. We had the opportunity to thank all those who had made our visit so special, and distributed high-end gifts from our in-kind sponsor: luxury goods manufacturer Halcyon Days.
Our China tour has been an extraordinary experience on so many levels. We’ve made superb music with great fellow musicians, been inspired by audiences’ responses and invited back to two cities. We’ve flown the flag for British culture, used our visit to bolster diplomatic ties between UK and Chinese arts organisations, and set in motion plans for an international exchange programme. It’s also been an opportunity to get to know one another better – a reminder that, ultimately, it is our sense of teamwork and shared endeavour that makes our music so incredibly potent. Sometimes, only going away can bring such powerful reminders home.