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Monday 18 December 2017

Art Seen: Passion For Music

I was an elvis fan, among other things -- I'm still living this down. It was just mentioned in my biog as a joke, and it was true, but it was a long time ago.

Out of curiosity, when I was in Memphis a year ago, I visited Graceland, so I've even seen the shrine. There was nothing unusual about it, in the sense that everyone likes pop music when they're young, and some people stay that way and others go on to other things.

It's hard to say what got me into classical music. I was just naturally drawn to it, bit by bit. When I was a teenager, suddenly I began to take more serious interest in it, and then I devoted myself to discovering music for several years, at the expense of some other A-levels.

The National Chamber Choir of Ireland will be performing a programme of three Bach cantatas, chosen because they fit the Easter season. Also, I have to say, they are fantastic pieces of music. Bach wrote so many cantatas: the incredible thing is how many of them are wonderful. If one had to choose a handful of the really important ones, these would certainly be among them, in my own experience.

There's a thread that goes right through the liturgical year, and what Bach did was provide cantatas for the whole church year. In fact, he provided two or three years' worth. These pieces are very much related to specific moments in the calendar, thematically, so there would have been a sermon related to the topic, which was then illuminated in the music. It was not just an isolated piece of holy entertainment -- there was a narrative thread for that day, which is what the cantatas were there to develop.

There are cantatas for different numbers of voices: there are cantatas for one singer and a relatively small number of instruments, and the most typical cantata is for a four-part choir, including soloists, and a small orchestra -- he never had a very large orchestra, by today's standards. A chorale, with its tune as well as its works, would provide the theme for that cantata, which would then be presented in different variations. There would be some solo arias, there would be choruses, and then at the end you would hear the chorale sung together by everybody.

The choir is fully professional. At the moment, we have a core membership, in theory, of 16. It used to be more, over 20, when there was more money. We've had to reduce the numbers. Although I must say, for Bach, the size is perfect. We work project by project; the choir doesn't meet once a week. For this project, they'll work with an assistant, who goes through the music with them. When I arrive, we'll have a few days of very concentrated rehearsal. At the end of that, we have our performances.

If you're not religious, you might feel that the religious stuff in the music might get in the way. But it's like with Christmas: it's more meaningful the more seriously you can take it -- it doesn't necessarily mean that you have to be 100% committed and busily going to church every day. I don't and I get a lot out of it. It's so much more powerful when things have a context that they can belong to.

Easter Cantatas: JS Bach will be performed on Friday, from 8pm, in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. Book online at www.irishbaroqueorchestra.com or telephone 01 44 345 22

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