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We’re delighted to share with you our behind-the-scenes blog, written by singing member, Georgina Donatantonio.
9 April 2021
THE WORLD ISN’T ON PAUSE AND NEW CAN HAPPEN.
What Bach Inspired means to the singers
Last week saw the official launch of ‘Bach Inspired’: six thought-provoking new works by six diverse and innovative musicians commissioned as responses to chorales in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. We got in touch with John Hobbs, Bass 2 singing member of The Bach Choir, to get his reaction to the Bach Inspired project.
I’m loving the freshness of the music. Whilst it’s a lot of fun to sing through some classic repertoire, the commissions have been a good reminder that the world isn’t on pause and ‘new’ can happen! Rehearsing each piece is a bit like a new bud unfurling on the St-Matthew-Passion tree.
Q: What’s your favourite moment of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion?
My favourite moment is the final chorus before the interval: O man, thy heavy sin lament. Each vocal line rises and falls like waves – a much-needed soother after the lightening and thunder!
Q: The end of lockdown is hopefully in sight. What excites you most about the return of the in-person rehearsals and concerts?
I cannot wait to see everyone again! Even putting friends aside, it’s a wonderfully varied group of people and I’m never sure who I will meet.
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21 March 2021
WHERE THERE’S A CAN’T THE BACH CHOIR FINDS A CAN!
What Bach Inspired means to the singers
So here it is: that time of the year when we should be performing the Bach St. Matthew Passion with many an enlightened face at the Southbank’s Royal Festival Hall. But alas, for the second consecutive year, we’re not able to do that.
Yet, when there’s a can’t, The Bach Choir finds a can. We’ve traded the traditional for the innovative. This year, we have teamed up with six diverse and innovative young musicians, who have each written a ‘response’ to the St. Matthew Passion Chorale which inspires them most. Hence the project title: ‘Bach Inspired’.
So what does Gillian Scott, Alto 1 singing member of The Bach Choir, have to say about the Bach Inspired project?
Q: What are you enjoying most about Bach Inspired ?
I have always been fascinated by the way music is composed and the fact that every piece of music has the same basic ‘ingredients’ – what we musicians refer to as the Elements of Music. It’s the way these ingredients are mixed together that makes each piece of music unique. In much of our standard repertoire, one could argue that the most prominent elements are Melody and Harmony, but the thing I like most about Bach Inspired is the way each of the composers has made different elements more prominent, eg. texture, rhythm and timbre. In addition to the technical side of things, I have greatly enjoyed the challenges of reading the sometimes-complex scores and difficult rhythms and choral lines.
Q: What’s your favourite moment of Bach’s St Matthew Passion?
I fell in love with the music of JS Bach when I was at school when one of my Set Works for O Level music was his Double Violin Concerto. I was introduced to the Chorales of Bach when studying for A Level music and one of our first pieces of homework was to listen to the chorales in the St Matthew Passion. I absolutely loved them and very quickly learned to write them. Therefore, my favourite moments have to be the singing of the chorales, particularly the Passion Chorale which we traditionally sing from memory in our annual performance. The harmonies are so emotive and evocative. Other than the chorales, my favourite moment has to be the instrumental introduction at the very beginning – I am immediately transported to another world! Wonderful!
Q: The end of lockdown is hopefully in sight! What excites you most about the return of the in-person Bach Choir rehearsals/concerts?
Singing to yourself at home on Zoom is something that we have all had to get used to, but it will never beat in-person rehearsals! So, the things that excite me most about returning to these rehearsals and concerts are meeting up again with friends and fabulous musicians and singers performing an extremely varied repertoire to a high standard. All this is achieved under the baton of a brilliant conductor, David Hill. We are also very fortunate to be able to perform in some wonderful concert halls, hopefully inspiring our audiences with the emotional power of choral singing.
8 February 2021
CHORALES +: HÉLOÏSE WERNER
Héloïse Werner (photo Emma Werner)
This term sees the start of the innovative Chorales+ project: six thought-provoking new works commissioned as responses to chorales in Bach’s St Matthew Passion.
Inner Phrases, by composer, soprano and cellist Héloïse Werner, is a response to Choral 21: Bach’s touching and evocative setting of the words “Receive me my redeemer”. It conjures up a bright sense of optimism and looks in the direction of thankfulness. But oh, how very different the same music sounds later on in the St Matthew Passion, when it is filled with despair and mourning.
So why did Héloïse Werner choose Choral 21? The words are hopeful and celebratory, looking up to something higher and thanking God for his offerings. She wished to write a piece that was uplifting and joyful in this tricky time of Lockdown 3.
Born in Paris, Héloïse chose a piece of text written by Arthur Rimbaud from his Phrases, Les Illuminations (1886). One poignant sentence speaks of looking up and marveling at the activity in the sky and finishing with a joyful dance. It is very encouraging, and for Rimbaud’s time, abstract and avant-garde. For Héloïse, it evokes a lot of vivid imagery and colours.
Whilst we wait until the joyful day when The Bach Choir can perform this innovative and inspirational Chorales+ project, I will leave you with Arthur Rimbaud’s picturesque words ringing:
“J’ai tendu des cordes de clocher à clocher;
des guirlandes de fenêtre à fenêtre;
des chaînes d’or d’étoile à étoile, et je danse.”
“I have hung ropes from bell-tower to bell-tower;
garlands from window to window;
golden chains from star to star, and I dance.”
(English translation by Helen Rootham)
25 January 2021
CHORALES +: JAMES B WILSON
This term sees the start of the innovative Chorales+ project: six thought-provoking new works commissioned as responses to chorales in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. I spoke with composer James B. Wilson to find out more about his Who Has Seen the Wind?
1. Who Has Seen the Wind? is a response to Choral 53. What drew you to this particular piece?
I was immediately drawn to this chorale because of its yearning words and natural references (the text mentions wind and sea). I live on the edge of a town, close to fields and a spring. The natural world, especially during this time, is a place of solace for me. I feel refreshed by it and enabled to do the hard work of writing. Because of this, Bach’s Choral 53 felt very relevant to me.
2. Please can you take us through the process of composing Who Has Seen the Wind?
After choosing my chorale and getting to know it well musically, I then went in search of a text to set in response. I found the poem Who Has Seen the Wind? by Christina Rossetti. This poem and the chorale from Bach share many commonalities. In both works the wind is mentioned – a natural force that is invisible and yet tangible in power – and in both there seems to be a call to faith. These themes and Rossetti’s words felt like a great starting point.
Next, I thought about the ‘architecture’ of the piece. How would the instrumental writing and singing co-exist? I decided that the piano and cello would serve as a frame for the words: they introduce the text, play an interlude, and give the work an ending. I now see in retrospect that these two separate musical groupings also serve different purposes. The instrumental frame is musically distinct, its tone is more direct, more romantic, and unbridled. It is a commentary on the choir’s serene, unadorned ponderings.
Once I had the totality of the piece in view, I started to collect the harmonic colours that could paint the mood and elucidate the psychological and spiritual concerns in the poem. From there, it was a matter of zooming into the detail and sculpting the music into place.
3. On a more light-hearted note, if you could take one piece of music with you to a desert island – any style, any era – what would it be, and why?
I find questions like this almost impossible to answer because, for me, variety is the spice of life; I flit from piece-to-piece like a magpie. Today, at this moment, my answer would be Narkopop from ambient musician ‘GAS’, which is a 10-part, 80-minute electronic-orchestral soundscape. I am finding that my musical taste is often led by my need to escape lockdown fatigue. I want to withdraw into something overwhelming and immersive. Narkopop is drone-driven music which is perfect to get lost in. It uses samples of Debussy and Mahler (amongst other things) but in total integration with GAS’S monolithic sound world. It is quite something.
4 January 2021
HAPPY NEW YEAR!
‘Tis early evening on the first Monday of the New Year. I emerge onto the street from Victoria Station, snuggle into my coat, and dodge many an impatient commuter on their way home from work, before finally seeking respite in the tranquility of Westminster Cathedral Hall.
Now should be a time to catch up with fellow choristers, indulge in Christmas gossip, and wait for the clock to strike 6:15pm before David clears his throat with an “ahem”.
Yet, this is 2021 and I’m ‘locked down’ at home. So I skip up the stairs, click the Zoom link, and watch faces and names slowly fill the screen.
Let’s not pretend this is music at its finest. But, for the moment, this is all we musicians have. So, we’ll make the most of it.
This term, we have lots to look forward to: from Mozart’s Mass in C Minor to six thought-provoking new works commissioned as responses to chorales in Bach’s St Matthew Passion. Though we may not stand shoulder-to-shoulder, every name and face that pops up on the screen week in week out is a refreshing reminder that, despite these continually challenging times, The Bach Choir is here to stay.
‘Tis the season to be jolly, yet the Herald Angels are not singing, Santa will not be coming to town this year, and we will not be driving home for Christmas. Rock around the Christmas tree all you like, but make sure to keep a social distance.
Devoid of The Bach Choir’s ‘Carols at Cadogan’ this December, I choose to reminisce. Here are my favourite Christmas-past Bach Choir moments:
– John Rutter’s Christmas Celebration – with a matinée and evening performance, this was tiring, but boy, was it a show! Rutter, ever the amiable and jovial presenter, was joined by The Bach Choir, The King’s Singers, and a very merry sing-along with the audience.
– Carols at Cadogan – always sold out, and it’s no surprise. Conducted by musical director David Hill in the intimate Cadogan Hall off Sloane Square, this feels cosy, homely and, in the days leading up to Christmas, just the festive feel-good we now crave!
– Royal British Legion Christmas Celebration – City of London has many an extravagant hidden location, and the Guildhall is one of them. Stone walls reflect impressively the bold sounds of the Royal British Legion Central Band and The Bach Choir. Dotted with festive stories, this is music, poetry, and prose, all-in-one.
30 November 2020
HOWELLS THAT FOR A GIFT!
What a treat to listen to Herbert Howells’ Missa Sabrinensis, meaning ‘Mass of the Severn’. Even more a treat when the chorus is none other than The Bach Choir. The weekend just passed, I received this charming CD enclosed with a kindly letter from Peter Floyd, The Bach Choir’s Honorary Treasurer. Conducted by David Hill and produced by Andrew Walton, this particular Mass was recorded over a weekend in May of 2019 at Watford Town Hall, with the BBC Concert Orchestra, featuring soloists Helena Dix, Christine Rice, Benjamin Hulett, and Roderick Williams.
To say this recording was a challenge would be somewhat of an understatement; the weeks preceding were intense! Herbert Howells, the composer, certainly didn’t give us an easy ride. However, this wasn’t the first time The Bach Choir had come head-to-head with Missa Sabrinensis. In 1982, one year before Howells’ death, the Royal Festival Hall turned into a festival of song as David Willcocks, the Choir’s previous Musical Director, had The Bach Choir perform it in honour of Howells’ 90th birthday. Thirty-eight years on and it has been revisited, revived, and conquered!
Why so tricky? Perhaps the CD booklet describes it best – “The main reason that the work was considered so difficult was due to the orchestra not being there to support the chorus in the traditional manner, but rather to build more and more lines of polyphony”.
But, as is said time and time again… “Nothing that’s worthwhile is ever easy.”
17 November 2020
THE PROMISE OF DAWN
A new and exciting project began in the darkening September nights. A commission from Gabriel Jackson on the theme of Darkness to Light was to have its premiere as an exciting new film.
Firstly, however, Jackson’s piece needed words. Members harbouring their inner poet were asked to write 3-4 lines, and the winning piece would be set to Jackson’s music. Laura-Jane Foley’s topical poem The Promise was chosen. I found out from Laura the inspiration behind her words.
On the blackest of nights, a star-less sky,
All light extinguished, all plans abandoned,
Still we can trust that the light will return.
In darkness there’s hope; the promise of dawn
By Laura-Jane Foley (S1)
What was the inspiration behind your poem ‘The Promise’?
“The brief was quite tight – 3 lines about darkness and 1 about light. My mind naturally went to the pandemic and the darkness of lockdown. The darkness of our temperaments but also the theatres, concert halls and shops literally in darkness. Someone once described me as being a bit ‘Polly Anna-ish’ and I suppose I am. The eternal optimist. The earth is always spinning on its axis, we’re always moving, we’re always waiting for the dawn to come. And it will. We have to trust in our faith that it will come.”
What is it about the current pandemic that has influenced your writing?
“The pandemic has proved to be rich creative material for me. I also wrote the libretto for A Life Reset (written with composer Dimitri Scarlato); a mini- opera about the equalising effects of lockdown. The opera premiered at the OperaVision #OperaHarmony online festival in August, and we were thrilled to be awarded the Ralf Liebermann prize.”
Aside from The Bach Choir and poetry, what are your interests?
“Well, in a normal year I’d probably say going to galleries (I’m an art historian and I have a podcast called ‘My Favourite Work of Art’ – please have a listen!) but this year – I have no idea. Haha! How about… watching telly, doing tie-dye, doomscrolling through Twitter?! I have a four-year-old daughter who isn’t at school yet, so we have lots of creative fun at home. She’s learning to play the piano at the moment, so I’ve dusted down the John Thompson books, and she taught herself Baby Shark so it seems to be going well!”
31 October 2020
FIVE LIFE LESSONS LEARNED FROM BRAHMS
The Bach Choir took to Zoom in April to sing Johannes Brahms’ Requiem, and again, over the last few weeks at live rehearsals (small and socially distanced) in Guildhall Yard.
Brahms’ Requiem is just one of many terrific and significant compositions The Bach Choir has performed. Yet, for all the times a work is brought back to life, how often do we know about the composer?
I thought it only courtesy to uncover the Brahms behind the Requiem. Turns out as well as being a joy to sing, Brahms also provides excellent life lessons to which I think The Bach Choir can relate – note, these are my personal musings and don’t represent any views held by The Bach Choir.
1. If at first you don’t succeed, try again – Leaves turning from green to brown, compositions unopened and neglected. This marked the September of 1853 for young Brahms. The recipient of these letters was Robert Schumann, heralded the musical God of the times. If you don’t receive an answer, “knock and the door shall be opened unto you”. This resilience marked the beginning of Brahms’ legacy. The Bach Choir may have not yet ‘succeeded’ in live performances this year due to the pandemic, yet an innovative, online platform has become a joy and success.
2. Either beat someone at their own game or shake up the rules – There were two defining figures of the late Romantic period: Brahms and Wagner. Both were hugely influential; both played the game differently. You might see it as Brahms, sitting at the right hand of Beethoven, and Wagner – a fallen angel – seeking new ground and crafting his own domain. The Bach Choir is closely aligned with Johann Sebastian, but that does not stop us from venturing confidently into the world of Tippett or MacMillan.
3. Slow and steady wins the race – If you’re ever in a panic that things are taking too long, then you could do worse than to remember Brahms. The pen went to paper of his First Symphony in 1854 (subject to debate). The orchestra first tuned 22 years later in 1876. Covid-19 may have put a spanner in the works of many a choir’s live repertoire in 2020, but the music industry is certainly not beaten.
4. You can poke your nose into both classical and pop – Think you can only like the one? Oh, how very wrong. Young Brahms entertained diners and enthralled those light on their feet with a touch of pop and folk during his younger years. The Bach Choir’s outreach programme, Vocalise!, sharing the joy of singing with children in primary schools, sees an impressive variety of genre.
5. All beauty fades… but music – The trusted search engine displays Brahms as a bearded, late-aged bachelor. Rewind 20 years, and we see a man of clean-shaven charm. Fortunately, what ceases to diminish is the beauty of music, and The Bach Choir’s gift to recreate it.
12 October 2020
THE BACH CHOIR DURING LOCKDOWN
Life-under-lockdown has savagely pulled the stage from under the full-time self-employed musician. It has hurled huge problems at musicians’ livelihoods, their incomes, upcoming tours, as well as swiftly turning once-thriving music venues into sparse and desolate places.
Still, despite this, and albeit in a different way, music has flourished. Different traditions, time-zones and ways of living have come together, producing distinct and diverse creations.
No, music cannot continue like this. But, music has always been an art of creativity, communication, and collaboration; being locked away has not put a stop to this. So, what has lockdown meant for The Bach Choir?
St Matthew Passion
Perhaps the most loved of the Choir’s yearly performances is Bach’s St Matthew Passion. Year-after-year, it fills out Royal Festival Hall, and the incredible story of the Passion of Christ is movingly sung out through chorus, recitative, and aria.
However, this year saw Covid throw a spanner in the works. But oh no, we weren’t going to give up the fight that easily. On Good Friday, 150 members took to their seats and gave a mesmerising virtual performance. In an odd way, the circumstances made it all that more moving.
A true Corona Contingency Plan in action.
Choral Workshops are choral training days, open to anyone who wants to raise the rafters. This was one thing that became better because of Covid. Suddenly, it wasn’t limited to those within easy access to central London. Around 500 people Zoom’d in to sing Fauré’s Requiem, from as far afield as San Francisco, Austria, and Brazil. As people’s comments show, it provided much-needed joy and relief.
Starting the New Season in Style
A new season and no vaccine. Nevertheless, in true Bach Choir fashion, the show must go on. A commission from Gabriel Jackson on the theme of Darkness to Light needed words. Members harbouring their inner poet were asked to write 3-4 lines, and the winning piece would be set to Jackson’s music. Laura-Jane Foley’s topical poem The Promise of Dawn was chosen. Wait for the exciting premiere of this!
There may be challenges ahead, but the strength, commitment and enthusiasm shown by The Bach Choir’s members and leaders during this difficult period, will ensure it not only continues, but thrives.