Sunday 13 March 2022

Bach Inspired: Mark Austin on the Bach Choir's project for six new works inspired by the St Matthew Passion

Bach Inspired - The Bach Choir - Stone Records
In this guest posting, pianist and conductor Mark Austin talks about the Bach Choir's Bach Inspired project, inviting six young composers to write a new work directly inspired by Bach's St Matthew Passion

In 2020 we all found our lives completely disrupted. I adapted to online activity, much of which included comical parodies of my work as a conductor. Some performers produced multi-track recordings which created a valuable sense of community. But I soon realised that most online products from lockdown would have little durability, despite the ingenuity and time that had gone into them.

The Bach Choir is known for its annual sell-out performances of the St Matthew Passion, a tradition of which it is rightly proud. With one performance having fallen victim to the pandemic, and the risk that the next would too, I wondered whether there was an opportunity to create something of lasting value to fill the void left in the Choir’s schedule.

The St Matthew Passion is structured around chorales, hymns based on old Lutheran melodies. Bach used them to comment on the narrative, re-harmonising the tunes to reflect the emotional intensity of the text. Vivid and new in his time, they can still provide a spark of inspiration today.

I pitched an idea to David Hill, the Choir’s Musical Director, who immediately saw the potential and made a number of invaluable suggestions. We would invite six composers to select a chorale from the St Matthew Passion. They would also choose a new text in response to it, and compose a short work for SATB choir, piano and, if they wished, a few other instruments. It had to be suitable for online Zoom rehearsals (no quarter-tones!) but the eventual goal was a live recording as soon as permitted. The recording would need to stand up to post-pandemic scrutiny.

We are thrilled that the project has resulted in some fantastic new works.
Héloïse Werner paired a chorale about heavenly grace with an evocative fragment by Arthur Rimbaud. The sound world she creates is hyper-real and joyous, featuring rhythmic chants and downward rushing scales which evoke the bells mentioned in the text. This piece poses a virtuosic challenge for singers, but the result is spectacular.

Gavin Higgins’ piece expresses anger at blatant injustice with a hard-hitting text by William Blake. Humans are the source of cruelty, and their capacity for evil is combined with the fire and metal of the industrial revolution. The choir sings in rhythmic unison throughout, lending fierce expression to the text. Unearthly cello harmonics and eruptions from the piano create an unsettling sense of latent energies waiting to be released.

Carmen Ho took the central chorale of the St Matthew Passion with its notion of death as release, and placed it alongside George Herbert’s beautiful poem Easter Wings. She foregrounds a passionate oboe solo, perhaps representing a human soul. The choir murmurs in prayer, huge piano chords add bursts of energy, and eventually the music disperses into individual lines and drifts away. This is liminal music, bridging two worlds, heard as if coming from a distant place.

James B. Wilson explores the theme of wind referred to in his Bach chorale. A poem by Christina Rossetti expresses the idea that something can have a presence although invisible. Wind moves through leaves on a tree, just as God moves through the world. He uses rippling piano chords and a lyrical cello melody to conjure up wafting air, set alongside a hymn-like texture in the choir tinged with mysterious harmonies and powerfully expressive dynamics.

Des Oliver takes the idea of God as a permanent, comforting presence. He visualises this as a mystical landscape, setting a poem by Sarojini Naidu, an important figure in the Indian civil rights movement. A truly cross-cultural work, it is as if Bach’s music from 18th century Leipzig reaches out to 20th century India, and these two epochs return hand-in-hand to 21st century Britain. Hypnotic patterns and melodies swirl out from the bass, inducing a trance-like state in the listener. Percussive instrumental parts provide constant energy, like fireflies flitting through the forest.

Charlotte Harding was touched by one phrase from her chorale - a reference to the “glow of life” decaying - and inverts this to evoke emergence into light as a new baby is born. Her piece is a hopeful response to darkness amidst a global pandemic. She has woven together texts from the 12th century abbess, scholar, and musician Hildegard of Bingen, and creates a sense of growth with music which is luminous, warm and inviting. Throughout the piece the cello sustains a single high note representing a continuous light, providing a harmonic centre around which the music is sustained.

Each composer kindly attended Zoom rehearsals of their pieces, which David Hill led brilliantly from the keyboard. The response from Choir members was encouraging; it was clear that the chance to work on suitably challenging new music and meet the composers on Zoom was very rewarding. After a number of false starts caused by changing restrictions (particularly unfair to choirs across the country), in summer 2021 we managed to record the works in St John’s, Smith Square. The Choir performed socially-distanced alongside instrumentalists from Faust Chamber Orchestra. I was delighted to be the record producer for the album, having spent months working with the composers and David to put everything in place. The result is a wonderful legacy, showcasing six brilliant composers and the Choir’s versatility while providing an alternative take on the St Matthew Passion from an unusual time.

Join us on Saturday 19 March for two events celebrating the launch of the ‘Bach Inspired’ album. At 11am David Hill leads a Come and Sing on the St Matthew Passion, open to all. Details from the Bach Choir's website

At 630pm, Times Culture Critic Richard Morrison joins David Hill onstage to discuss Why Listen to Bach? and I will interview the six composers about their pieces with the chance to hear some extracts. Drinks will be available in the hall for what should be a relaxed and fascinating evening. Details from the Bach Choir's website.

Written by Mark Austin

The Bach Choir's album Bach Inspired is released on 18 March 2022.  The album is released on Stone Records in the lead-up to the Bach Choir’s annual St Matthew Passion at the Southbank Centre on 10 April (finally returning after a 2 year hiatus) with soloists including Mark Stone as Christ, Ed Lyon as Evangelist, Sophie Bevan, Toby Spence, Jane Irwin and Roderick Williams, with David Hill conducting the Bach Choir, Florilegium, Finchley Children's Music Group and Southwark Cathedral Girls' Choir

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