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.’