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First Rock, than Baroque: 
My unorthodox journey to western music’s greatest composer


By Robert Macfarlane (Leipzig)


While putting together my program for the Australian 
Bach Society’s concert ‘The Path to Bach’ on 7 May 2016, 
as the snow gently falls on Bach's Leipzig outside my 
window, I took a moment to reflect on my own path to
 his unique genius. For me there were two clear 'light bulb
 moments' and a good deal of luck that brought me to
 this seminal music.


The first of two ‘light bulb moments’ that led me to Bach,
 and classical music generally, came when taking my first
 singing lessons in my last year of high school. My generous 
and patient teacher struggled to find something that
 would interest me: I'd grown up playing rock music in 
the garage, and songs from hit musicals and light classical
 repertoire did absolutely nothing for me. It wasn’t
 until he threw me a few songs from Schubert’s masterpiece
 Winterreise that I finally saw something in Classical 
Music which thrilled me in ways that not even the
 Rock music of my childhood could. I immediately dove 
head first into this tremendous wealth of song literature,
 and six months later auditioned successfully for the 
Bachelor of Music at Adelaide’s Elder Conservatorium.


At the Conservatorium I was lucky enough to be assigned
 to a teacher, Keith Hempton, who had interests
 outside of grand opera and was a lover of both early and
 modern music. Fairly soon Bach, in particular the Evangelist
 roles in the passions, became the obvious middle
ground for my voice. My second ‘light bulb moment’ 
came while singing in the chorus for the Perth Festival’s
 staged production of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. The 
festival had been lucky enough to engage the German 
tenor Gerd Türk as the Evangelist, and hearing him sing
 was nothing short of a revelation for me. Here was a 
voice that wasn’t ‘operatic’ in the traditional Italian 
sense, but neither was it light and airy like many of the 
early music singers I had been exposed to. The voice was 
a clarion vehicle for the drama depicted in the text.
 There was no question in my mind that this was what 
my voice was designed to do.


Luckily enough, the doors to this repertoire began to
 open for me at the same time. In 2007 I sang my first 
Evangelist role (in St. John Passion) in Adelaide to great
 acclaim, and led to a meeting with Graham Lieschke,
 director of the Bach Cantata program at St. Johns Southgate
, who brought me over to Melbourne to sing a cantata
 at short notice. This first performance led to a long
 lasting musical friendship with Graham and the St.
Johns Cantata project, with whom I still sing whenever I 
find myself in Australia.


Crucially, it also afforded me the opportunity to meet
 former Thomaskantor Georg Christoph Biller during the
 Thomanachor’s visit to Australia in 2009. Biller was gracious
 enough to hear me again in 2010, when I first
 came to Europe to explore the music scene. I was immediately 
taken by the man’s musicality and generosity. He
 made some very astute musical suggestions and introduced
 me to his Tenor soloist, Martin Petzold, who became
 a deciding influence in deciding to come to Leipzig 
to study. Although I spoke very little German at the time,
 and he very little English, we nevertheless spent an enthralling 
two hours working through the Evangelist of
 St. John. His wonderful depiction of the way the phrasing
 should mimic the events in the text made it clear to
me that Leipzig was where I needed to be to truly get to
 know Bach. We would continue to work together sporadically 
throughout my studies in Leipzig, which I finally
 began at the end of 2012.


After almost a year in Leipzig, the greatest honour of my
 professional life came in the form of an invitation from 
Herr Biller to sing under his baton in the Thomaskirche,
 with the Thomanachor and Gewandhaus Orchestra. The
 program was excerpts from Bach’s B Minor Mass,
 one of the masterpieces of Western culture. To say that it
's an otherworldly experience to sing the Mass in B Minor’s
 Benedictus in the building it was written for, in its
 proper liturgical context, would be a huge understatement.
 In fact, it is an experience that I cannot ably summarise 
with words. Instead, I will borrow the words of
 recorded history’s greatest Bach Tenor, Peter Schreier. 
In a recent newspaper interview, Schreier was asked
 whether he believed in God. “Of course,” he answered, “I
 believe in Johann Sebastian Bach.”


Robert Macfarlane (29) was born in Hamilton (Victoria, Australia) and is
 now residing in Leipzig as his ‘European headquarters’ pursuing
an exciting career in his genre extending beyond the music
 of J.S. Bach.
 Robert was invited to be part of the 2015 'Weihnachts-
Oratorium’ and returned to Australia again in May 2016. We were delighted our ‘Bach Ambassador’ agreed to assemble a tailor-
made program for a recital at the German Church East
 Melbourne on Saturday 7 May 2016 – joined by 
John O’Donnell (harpsichord) and Laura Vaughan (viola da
 gamba): The Path to Bach – The Schemelli Songbook and
the liturgical music of Weimar and Leipzig.’

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