Gloriana Celebrates Twenty Years with Bach

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Shot of 2010 performance. Image by WH Chong.

Gloriana Chamber Choir is celebrating its twentieth year with a special performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor at St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne.

The Mass is a formidable work that poses a series of challenges even to the seasoned conductor and chorister but choir director Andrew Raiskums has never been one to shy from artistic challenges. In fact, a desire for artistic challenges is what first inspired Raiskums to start Gloriana back in 1994.

In the lead-up to the performance Andrew Raiskums shares some thoughts about what inspired him to choose Bach for the choir’s anniversary performance and what choral challenges he envisages for the coming years.

Bach’s Mass in B Minor is an epic work. What made you to choose it for the choir’s anniversary performance?

I wanted a work that conveyed a sense of occasion, one that foregrounded the choir and its skills and reflects where we have come from and where we are going. Bach has been with us from the start and each time we come back to his music there is always a palpable sense of joy and excitement.

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Cartoon of 2010 performance by WH Chong.

Gloriana performed this work to great acclaim a few years back. What’s different this time? How has your understanding of the work changed over time?

I prefer to perform the work on period instruments and back in 2010 there were fewer skilled baroque players in Melbourne. The B minor mass calls for a large orchestra by Bach’s standards — there are two flutes, three oboes, two bassoons, three trumpets, natural horn, timpani in addition to strings and continuo and I remember that we had to bring down the second trumpet from Sydney, the third oboe from Newcastle, the first bassoon from Perth. This time, all the players are from Melbourne and it was straightforward bringing the orchestra together.

I learnt a great deal from our first performance. Musically, there’s so much going on in the Mass. I remember getting to the central parts of the Sanctus and thinking — what do I actually do here? With Bach the music is so strong and so well written that intervening too much works against it. You have to provide a solid beat and often that is all you need to do. I love working with the soloists and phrasing along with them, following their breathing, giving them space to shape the lines. The big moments with the trumpets and timpani are of course thrilling. It’s such an exciting and yet humbling experience to be the person out the front. For me, the music inspires a real sense of reverence.

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Two views of 2010 concert. Images by WH Chong.

An odd question but a relevant one – what role has Bach played in your life? In your view what’s the most important thing to get right when you’re interpreting Bach?

Bach has been a part of Gloriana’s repertoire right from the start. We have performed the motets many times, the John Passion and it is a dream to do the Matthew Passion. But my musical tastes range far and wide. Our audiences know that I’m just as passionate about contemporary music as I am about early music.

But I feel more strongly now than ever that Bach is like the sun around which other planets revolve. Everything is there in Bach’s music. There are moments of sublime simplicity and there are gut-wrenchingly difficult moments that challenge even the best of us. I think it was Pablo Casals who said “Bach is the greatest and purest moment in music of all time”.

I think most important consideration when performing Bach is the tempi. This sounds simplistic but Bach’s music is highly contrapuntal and all the lines need to be heard. If the tempo is too fast then you can’t hear what the lines are doing; too slow can destroy a sense of the independence of the lines. Bach’s music can take a variety approaches. But getting the tempi right is paramount. You need to allow for clarity and yet you need let the music dance when it needs to.

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Cartoon of 2010 performance by WH Chong.

Finally, it’s probably hard to focus on anything else during such an undertaking, but what do you envisage next for Gloriana?

After twenty years you start to think that you have done it all. If I look back on say, the last ten years, I know that I took some fairly big risks repertoire-wise and they paid off. I’m a musical explorer and I love new challenges.

That said, I love revisiting works. Some works are so rich and complex that you need a number of performances to master the difficulties and find new things to say. I would include, for example the Rachmaninov Vespers in this category and we have performed this piece three times now. But I know I have more to say with it.

I have a number of pieces in my bucket list. The Arvo Pärt Passio, James Macmillan’s Seven Last Words, the Mozart Requiem. Even the Beethoven Missa Solemnis. We haven’t yet done the Monteverdi Vespers in its entirety — that is planned for later in the year.

Gloriana will be performing the Bach Mass in B Minor at St Paul’s Cathedral, corner of Swanston and Flinders streets, on Friday 13 June at 8 pm. Tickets $50 (pre-bookings recommended) credit-card facilities are now available at www.gloriana.com.au

EFT payment options — please advise us of the transaction by email: admin@gloriana.com.au or by phone on (03) 8319 0942. Account name “Beautiful Noises Pty Ltd” BSB 013017, account number 270481692. 

$15 Student Rush at the door. 

Find out more:

St Paul’s Cathedral Events Page

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