Bach Akademie Australia
Christ Church St Laurence, Friday November 13, 2020
In the first orchestral concert for Christ Church St Laurence since COVID struck down the performing arts, the exquisite Bach Akademie Australia chamber ensemble presented two intimate evening concerts, back to back, to a live audience. I can only guess the stress behind the scenes of presenting a live concert in these COVID times. Which makes it all the more satisfying as an audience member to appreciate the artistry of a live classical music concert, when artists are driven to perform.
Weichnachtsfreude was a beautiful program of four pieces from the master of European musical roots, JS Bach pieces. Performed with passion and gusto by some of Australia’s finest musicians and vocalists, you could feel the intensity emanating from the stage and bouncing back from the audience within the sheer joy of making live music again.
A much-needed musical tonic in these challenging times…
The sold out concerts were directed by the ensemble’s powerhouse leader Madeleine Easton from her 1682 Giovanni Grancino violin. The church came alive at once with music that spoke of Christmas, joy and love, sent up through the sandstone walls to the painted blue rafters.
The program began with the Motet BMV 230 ‘Lobet den Herrn’. Scored unusually by Bach for only four voices instead of double choir, this concert presented the sumptuous tones of soprano Susannah Lawergren, the rich alto Hannah Fraser, the bright and sensitive tenor Richard Butler and the always commanding baritone Andrew O‘Connor. With text taken from only two verses of Psalm 117, the effect is particularly significant to our world at the moment in its mention of ‘all nations and all peoples’ and that ‘truth endureth.’ In a welcome return to performance, the clarity and balance of these well-known and sublime singers was at once both charismatic and hypnotic.
Lamenting the lack of choral music in my life since COVID put a stop to rehearsals, my 2020 taste of a vocal Christmas came with magical arias from the Christmas Oratoria BWV 248 Part II. Tenor Richard Butler entreated the shepherds in ‘Frohe Hirten, eilt, ach eilet’ while alto Hannah Fraser sang baby Jesus to sleep in the lullaby aria ‘Schlafe, mein Liebster’. A lilting interweaving conversation took place between the vocalists and the touching obligato flute played by Mikaela Oberg. In the intimate acoustics of St Laurence, you could hear each instrument separately and also together as an ensemble. It’s my first concert here (I know, right) and I can see why it’s a favourite amongst classical musicians and vocalists. I’m used to the broad and lively acoustic of St James in the city, but this ‘inner city church that welcomes people from all walks of life’ is enveloping and welcoming.
Awoken from our vocal immersion, we’re treated to three parts, including two Allegros, of the famous Brandenburg Concerto, No. 5 BWV 1050. ‘Whether these concerti were a job application or a simple gift to his Royal admirer it is difficult to ascertain,’ reads the program notes. Like a tumbling and cascading waterfall, the accomplished master of the harpsichord Neal Peres Da Costa presents the concerto with joy and musical skill, in the ‘first concerto with a solo keyboard part’. Certainly the technical skills of Da Costa are on show, and yet there is so much more to it than that, with a lesson to us all of what the instrument itself can achieve in engaging an audience.
Finally Cantata BWV 133 ‘Ich freue mich in dir’, composed in Leipzig for the Third Day of Christmas and first performed in 1724 – nearly 300 years ago. Still the impact of COVID is felt, as we are told that there will be no oboes due to border closures. The two violinists, Matthew Greco and Rafael Font, step up to replace them, and the result is a Cantata of essentials, elemental music in all its glory. Although the forces might be considered small, it is still an overwhelmingly jubilant work which Sir John Eliot Gardiner has described as conveying the ‘sheer exhilaration of Christmas.’
Viola player Nicole Forsyth, cellist Daniel Yeadon and Kirsty McCahon on double bass, underpin powerfully the strength of the music and provide a tight ensemble to interweave with the singers.
This was the ensemble’s first live audience concert of the year, though they did perform two for the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall platform.
‘Live-streaming is incredibly difficult,’ says Kirsty. ‘You have to supply all the energy. This symbiosis with a live audience is essential to music making. We make music together.’
‘It’s an indescribable feeling to perform live,’ says Madeleine. ‘What the audience gives us is irreplaceable. It’s a holy trinity between musician, composer and audience. And without one of those three you just don’t get the magic. We rely on all of them.’
Welcome back Bach Akademie Australia!