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The Choir of London

The Choir of London

Christmas can be a bad time for music lovers. As the mercury soars, the standard takes a nosedive, leaving us festering in a gloop of dreary choral bonanzas, nauseous noels and hideously schmaltzy American toons. It’s enough to make you want to stuff your figgy pudding where the sun doesn’t shine.

Thankfully there is a cure for all this aural agony in the form of J. S. Bach. Here is a man who knew how to keep the season sacred, at least musically speaking. Yet he remains the Yuletide’s best-kept secret: you will never hear his mighty Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248) blaring out in Myers on a continuous loop sandwiched between Wham and the artery-slicing vocals of Noddy Holder, or be subjected to random street-corner choral assaults.

Actually, in Australia you are unlikely to hear this exquisite Baroque masterpiece anywhere at all. Handel’s Messiah is the usual bill of fare for all things classical at this time of year (even though it was actually written for Lent). But that’s about to change.

This season, the Australian Chamber Orchestra has risen to the challenge of presenting the little-known oratorio – a monumental work made up of six cantatas so exquisite it’s enough to turn your eyes to the heavens even if you are a devout atheist like the ACO’s director, Richard Tognetti, who will be performing it for the first time on 19 December 2013 at Hamer Hall in Melbourne. ”Playing Bach is the closest thing I get to having a religious epiphany,” he says. ”You can bathe in the beauty of Bach and forever be flabbergasted at the man’s creative and technical genius.”

Bach was an unswervingly religious man. His devotion to God and the Lutheran church was what kept him sane through the repetitive onslaught of grief that saw him orphaned at ten, widowed at thirty-five and forced to bury ten of his children. It is impossible, says Tognetti, for his experiences not to have leached into his music, instilling it with a purity of emotion wrenched from the kernel of his soul so that we, too, feel the rawness of his pain and the joy and ecstasy of his religious fervor, whether we share his beliefs or not. Much has been made of Bach’s formidable intellectual and musical prowess, but it is his humanity that shakes us to the core.

In many ways he shares much in common with today’s modern man; he was protective and ambitious for his remaining offspring and worked hard to provide a roof and an income. He was cantankerous, often in disputes with his employers, exploited, undervalued and disgruntled. A pedantic letter writer, he was, says Tognetti, the type who, if he were alive today, would annoy editors with endless missives on all sorts of topics, signed ”Concerned, of Leipzig.”

As always, it is impossible to separate the man from the music, and the Christmas Oratorio bears many of the silver hallmarks of Bach’s legendary genius; perfectly mingling intense organizational structures with great lyrical beauty. Although it was originally written for the festive season of 1734, the work incorporates recycled earlier secular pieces. Like Messiah – which followed ten years later – it tells the story of the Nativity from birth right through to the Adoration of the Magi. But unlike Handel’s masterpiece, the narration is in German, which may account for its lack of popularity over here – the audience can’t sing along.

Not that the language really matters; Bach could well have been writing about the joys of fly fishing and the numinous effect may well be the same. Says Tognetti: ”I ask the question: if we found out that Bach was actually a secularist and just went along because he didn’t want to upset the church, would we enjoy the music any less? Absolutely not.” More ad hoc than St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244b), more exuberant than the Mass in B minor (BWV 232), the Christmas Oratorio is, he insists, by no means a lesser work. Still, how hard is it for the ACO to venture into new territory without offending our festive hunger for familiarity?

Traditionally, the six cantatas were meant to be played on each of the major feast days over the Christmas period; Tognetti’s crew will be packing them into one four-hour concert (including a dinner break). That’s quite an intense dollop of concentration required.

”Great. Let’s expect people to make that commitment,” says Tognetti, crisply. ”We have all got such short attention spans; we are all multi-tasking and wasting time. So to sit there and bask in the glory of Bach – and the religious people can bask in the glory of the Lord through the portal of Bach’s music – and yes it’s three hours, but it’s a great night’s entertainment.”

He points out we do it for sporting events without even blinking. ”I went to the football the other night. It took me two hours to get there, we watched two forty-minute halves that was boring as bat shit and then spent an hour getting out of the car park. That was commitment with very little return.”

Another reason why the Oratorio is not often performed here is the sheer effort required in staging it. The ACO will be joined by a coterie of woodwind and brass players and the Choir of London, an ensemble made up of professional singers and soloists who have been instrumental in building bridges through music in the Middle East, not least by establishing an annual Bach festival in Palestine. (Originally the Monteverdi Choir led by John Eliot Gardiner was booked, but he had to pull out due to ill health.)

The London Choir is a fitting replacement, because Bach’s music transcends the limitations of man-made religions. Soli Deo Gloria – only for the glory of God – he wrote on his compositions. But it was Martin Luther’s declaration that ”only music deserves being extolled as the mistress and governess of the human heart” that was really the mantra that he lived by.

Kathy Evans – The Sydney Morning Herald