Ahead of Bach Akademie Australia’s final concerts for the year, classikON spoke to the ensemble’s Founder and Artistic Director, Australian violinist Madeleine Easton, about the group’s inception, the ‘Comfort and Joy’ Bach’s music brings (particularly at Christmas-time), and why you shouldn’t overthink Bach (if you don’t want to!).
classikON: You’ve spent much of your career in Europe. Tell me about your decision to start Bach Akademie Australia, and what its place is within the context of music in Australia?
Madeleine: I had been wanting to find a way to move back to Australia for quite a long time; after the financial crisis of 2008, the Arts council in England had its funding slashed by 50%, and so did lots of countries in and around Europe – like Spain and Portugal – all the places we used to tour to on a regular basis. The knock-on effect was devastating for the music industry. Those tours evaporated, so long story short, my income started to fall and never really recovered – not for anyone, actually. We’re now ten years down the track from that crisis, but financially, incomes have never ever recovered. It was at this point I thought, ‘do I really want to struggle so much for the rest of my life?’, and also thought, ‘I miss my family and the weather in the UK is challenging’ so the idea of coming back to Australia became increasingly attractive, but what was I going to come home to? I’d been so used to playing with all these wonderful orchestras and ensembles all around the world and wondered, ‘what can I do that’s going to be as satisfying and wonderful as what I have been doing for the last fifteen years?’, and then it came to me: ‘hang on a minute, what about starting a dedicated Bach ensemble! I love the repertoire, I think I could do it well’. I bandied the idea about to a few close family members and friends, and happily they unanimously agreed that it was a great idea as nothing like that existed in Australia at the time. Within Europe, there are many dedicated Bach ensembles, and the countries which have them really love them because they get to hear Bach’s wonderful cantatas, oratorios and instrumental works performed regularly. I knew I could give that to Australia. That gave me my reason to come home!
Why is it that the themes of Christmas inspired Bach so much?
I would say the reasons are two-fold: number one, it was part of his job as the cantor at both the Thomaskirche and the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig, the other church he worked in, to write a certain amount of cantatas for his job. We have Bach’s early cantatas plus his five amazing Leipzig cycles of cantatas, all of which contain music inspired by Christmas. The second reason is I think there’s something about that time of year that inspired him anyway, for example, his Christmas oratorio which is absolutely spectacular. He didn’t write many oratorios, however he did devote an enormous amount of time to writing the Christmas Oratorio, so it must have meant a lot to him. He writes so beautifully and so well for the text and message of that time of year, so I thought, ‘well, Christmas is coming up, what a perfect opportunity to showcase some of Bach’s most beautiful works written specifically for Christmas.’
When you say that the way he writes showcases the text and the themes, how does he do that, and in such a timeless way?
Good question! Well, the first cantata we’ve chosen, Süsser Trost, which means ‘Sweet Comfort’, is the most beautiful, calming, soothing and healing piece of music. It represents the relief and the joy the human race collectively felt when baby Jesus was born. It’s a beautiful example of how Bach musically represents that sentiment. He chose a solo flute and soprano to illustrate the meaning of the text which is still as moving today as it was then. Moreover, it’s all about joy as well: two of the cantatas we’re doing have choruses called Gloria in Excelsis Deo, which means ‘glory to God in the highest’. It’s just the joy of the whole occasion! It means so much to be around friends and family with kids jumping around, etc. Bach himself had twenty children, and he would have experienced the same joy as well. No-one musically depicts the joy of Christmas better than Bach in my opinion – it’s just beautiful, and so uplifting.
You’re obviously a big fan of JS Bach, and have spoken a lot in other interviews and things about why you love him. What would your advice be to anyone who’s not convinced, or feels intimidated by his music’s reputation?
I would say don’t overthink any of it. Yes, of course, if one wants to, one can delve into it from an academic point of view finding no end of wonders to discover; but if you’re a layperson, Bach can be an incredibly relaxing and beautiful thing to listen to. One cannot fail to leave a concert of Bach feeling like everything is right with the world. The music soothes you, takes your worries away, and uplifts you at the same time. And it doesn’t matter if you’re a bricklayer or a professor of neuroscience – you will come away feeling that same amazing sense of wellness and satisfaction.
What would you say the take-home message about this programme is?
The pieces that we’ve chosen, ‘Sweet Comfort’ (BWV 151), the sublime Orchestral Suite in B minor followed by Part II of the Christmas Oratorio, which is a musical description of the nativity, are all beautiful and uplifting. Finally, we finish with his cantata BWV 191 ‘Gloria in Excelsis Deo’. No other cantata I can think of provides the opportunity to take a moment out of our crazy, frenzied, mad lives, to sit, reflect and feel comforted which I think is a very special gift. For myself, that’s the take-home message from this program of Bach. It’s the close of the year, this is the last concert we’re doing, and we want to send everybody out on a real high!
Sounds like you definitely will!
Madeleine’s Bach Akademie Australia will be doing three performances of their Comfort & Joy – Cantatas for Christmas programme: Friday 29th November, 7:30pm at Christ Church St Laurence, Sydney; Saturday 30th November, 7:30pm at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Parramatta; and Sunday 1st December, 2pm at Holy Name Church, Wahroonga.