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Getting a buzz from Bach: interview with Elizabeth Anderson

The Australian Chamber Choir is busily rehearsing all six Bach Motets for its recitals in November at the German Church in East Melbourne. We offer you a glimpse behind the scenes courtesy of Elizabeth Anderson, the renowned harpsichordist, alto and choir manager.

Elizabeth, tell us a bit about your background. What brought you to music?

When I was two, my parents immigrated to Australia as “ten pound Poms”. I attended primary school in Launceston and for some reason a lot of the kids there went to Sunday school. I wanted to join in, so my parents took me to the Congregational Church in Launceston. I sang in the church choir from the age of six and started learning piano soon after that. My family wasn’t particularly musical but I always had a feeling for it. On the advice of my wonderful piano teacher, I moved to Melbourne for university and picked up harpsichord as a second instrument. I’ve never looked back. 

Your husband Douglas Lawrence founded the Australian Chamber Choir in 2007 and you’ve since earned great acclaim both at home and abroad. Is it easy working together?   

By default we’re together the whole time – doing admin for the choir, playing four-hands organ, dis-cussing programs, thinking about bits of music and arguing about how to interpret Bach. There’s always a fantastic toing and froing of ideas. Douglas’ secret is that he plays the choir like an instrument. He expects to produce expression in the same way as he does when he plays an organ solo, so he’s able to put across ideas and even subtle changes in tempo with great spontaneity. That’s the magic.

And how are the rehearsals going for the Bach Motets?

Really well. Our choir is typically made up of 18 highly trained singers and we rehearse once a week in the six weeks leading up to a concert. Douglas likes to keep the rehearsals short because he’s very aware that singers can fatigue. People come in after a long day at work and go out feeling energised. It’s very full-on and intense. 

Do you find the German texts easy to learn?    

The German sung in Bach’s Leipzig is the sound that we hope to make as a choir. I’m always careful to corner singers who are native German speakers and go through the texts with them. Thanks to the Australian Bach Society, we recently performed at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig. We stayed with members of the congregation and had the opportunity to become part of the culture that Bach lived in. It was really meaningful for all of us and has even inspired some of our members to enrol in German courses.

Your performances of Bach have been widely praised. Can you describe what Bach means to you?

He’s one of the most interesting composers to study and I never tire of his work. I don’t know how many times I’ve played the Goldberg Variations but it always feels like an old friend and I discover new things every time. In the choir, too, it’s good to come back to Bach in a rehearsal. The harmony and polyphony are amazing and people really get a buzz from it. Any one voice has the difficulty level of a complicated solo and the breathing is a fantastic exercise in teamwork.

And finally, what should our audience listen for during the Motets?

I think the chorales are the most beautiful part. They are the simplest music in the entire program. After all that incredible complexity, it’s so refreshing to return to a gloriously simple four-part hymn tune that most of the audience members probably recognise.

A tribute to the 'Bach' Motif
Bach Cello Suites Nos. 1 and 2