Sydney’s Newest Baroque Ensemble – BachBand@St James’

The Choir of St James'
The Choir of St James’

When the Choir of St James’ gives its debut performance at Sydney’s City Recital Hall this week, it will be celebrating another first – the premiere of the newly formed BachBand@St James’. The choir  and band with soloists directed by St James’ Head of Music, Warren Trevelyan-Jones, will perform J S Bach’s St John Passion, BWV 245. It is the inaugural event in a series of concerts presented by St James’ which celebrates the music of Bach, beginning this year and continuing into 2019.

Violist Nicole Forsyth is Artistic Curator of the Bach series. She says it is the realisation of a long-cherished vision held by Warren Trevelyan-Jones who has aspired to present a Bach cantata series with the Choir of St James’ as it is done in England and in Europe, with soloists drawn from the choir. This takes a special kind of chorister who can adapt their style to a choral blend as well as an individual solo sound. Nicole describes the choristers of St James’ as “an absolutely brilliant bunch of singers” adding “we thought it was high time that we had a regular Bach cantata series in the city of Sydney, because that is something that Sydney has not had for a long while, particularly in a liturgical setting at a professional level.”

For their debut, the BachBand@St James’ will be made up of musicians who are experts in historically informed performance (HIP). “There are various versions of the St John Passion with different settings. We’re using one that accords with one voice to a part in the choir or almost one to a part in the choir” says Nicole.

The instruments used will be originals or re-productions of the instruments used in Bach’s time, recreating closely the Bach’s baroque soundscape. Performing on them, will be a mix of experienced players, several of whom are based overseas and others with extensive experience in Europe before returning to live in Australia, with young and up-coming players. “Stephen Freeman is leading the band,” continues Nicole. “He is one of Australia’s longest standing HIP performers on historic violin. He’s had years of experience while living in Amsterdam. He’s been resident in Sydney for the last two years and plays with a variety of period ensembles.”

“Oboist Amy Power is currently based in Austria and has agreed to come back and play the very tricky first oboe part in the band. She has to play a variety of double-reeded beasts – baroque oboes, oboe da caccia and oboe d’amore; we have Brock Imison to play baroque bassoon – he plays with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra; Alistair Nelson, the church organist at St James’ is playing organ continuo and we’re very lucky to have a second continuo in this setting in which Bach decided to use the harpsichord, which will be played by Anthony Abouhamad who is on staff at the Sydney Conservatorium and also the continuo player for the Muffat Collective. “

“Anita Gluyas will play the cello with Natasha Kraemer who is a recent migrant to Melbourne from the UK. We have the wonderful opportunity to use her incredible continuo skills; and Rafael Font-Viera will lead the second violins. We also have some much younger graduates who have just finished in the HIP division at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music – Meg Cohen, Victor Avila and Thea Turnbull.  It’s really nice to be able to provide a platform for them to learn and perform.”

The choir which will be centre stage with the band will be augmented by the Senior Chamber Choir of Santa Sabena College and the treble singers of Shore School in the gallery and boxes of the auditorium, making the most of the acoustic of the City Recital Hall which Nicole believes is very well suited to the performance of baroque music on historical instruments.

Outlining the long-term plan behind this performance, Nicole explains “We chose to perform this liturgical work in a concert setting to ensure that the city of Sydney has the best access to this work” adding “We hope to draw the audience back to St James’ for some of the other cantatas later on this year.” Reverend Andrew Sempell, the rector at St James’ is an unflinching supporter of the music programme at St James’. Says Nicole, “He thought that the idea of a very simple Bach evensong service as a meditation in music to be sung each month through 2018 and 2019 was appealing. In 2017 we have 4 cantata concerts as well at the St John Passion. The idea is to have regular Sunday cantatas each month that people in Sydney will come along and experience Bach’s music in a beautiful historic church – the most historic church in Sydney.”

Later in the year, St James’ will unveil another project. Cantatas 2017 will look at how Bach worked in Leipzig, with the demands of composing and rehearsing his cantatas in just a week. “With the cooperation of the City of Sydney, we’re appointing an Australian composer-in-residence for what will be fantastic project in December. The public can attend the community workshops that we will run and also come along and experience the composer-in-residence in the church as Bach would have been for the week prior to the cantata performance on the Sunday.”

“We really hope that this Bach project will be for everybody in Sydney and that young and old alike will want to be involved.”

Nicole Forsyth spoke with Shamistha de Soysa from SoundsLikeSydney©

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