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'I can't imagine life without Bach' - an interview with Graham Lieschke

St Johns Southgate recently celebrated a milestone, presenting the 100th different Bach cantata in its popular series. Professor Graham Lieschke, Director of Music at St Johns, reflects on this vast achievement.

Professor Lieschke, you’re a clinical and research haematologist. You’re internationally renowned for your research into blood disorders and cancer, yet you’ve also received the Dame Roma Mitchell Churchill Fellowship for your work with the music of J.S. Bach. How do you find the time?

My profession is in medicine and medical research but I’ve always had a passionate love of music, and particularly the music of Bach. Through school I studied organ and accompanied the choir. I grew up next door to a Lutheran church and went to a Lutheran boarding school, so I played regularly for the church. Then I went to university, where I became the organ scholar at Ormond College under Douglas Lawrence. From my first days there, I started playing at St Johns. It’s been an intense passion outside my career. So I don’t know how I find the time but I can’t imagine life without music, and certainly not without Bach.  

You direct the St Johns Bach Choir and Orchestra. How is the ensemble put together?

We have a core group that plays regularly but the Bach cantatas use orchestras of very diverse compositions, so we also recruit peoples as necessary. I’m fortunate to have the support of the early music community and the great enthusiasm amongst them for presenting this music, so I’m able to get many excellent players. Similarly, St Johns is a small congregation and could never have a choir that could sing Bach, so the choir is assembled from a group of names. There’s again a core that sings in most events but there’s another group of skilled enthusiasts who join in to make up an ensemble of 20 or 24 voices. Everyone who takes part gets paid something but we also rely on their goodwill and love of the music for the program to be viable. I readily acknowledge that what we do is built on the success and a lot of hard work by many other music directors in town, who turn inexperienced singers into people who can sing Bach.

For someone who hasn’t been to a cantata service, what can they expect? 

The driving vision is to present the cantatas as part of a Sunday morning service. We have a 9 am liturgical service every Sunday at St Johns and eight or ten times a year, that includes a cantata. We don’t charge an admission fee and as a matter of policy we never will. Some people choose to leave after the cantata, while others stay for the whole service. The services incorporate not only the splendid cantatas but customarily also splendid organ music, most usually by Bach as well. The organ here at St Johns was built to play the music of Bach uncompromisingly well and of the instruments in town, I think it is one of the very successful ones in doing so. Recognising that we have a lot of visitors, we print a service order with the cantata libretto in it. It also has all the music so that people can participate in the other parts. So they’ll find a traditional, liturgical service with congregational chant and hymn singing, drawing particularly from the Lutheran chorale tradition. This is exactly the type of thing that you would experience if you went to hear a cantata presentation at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig in Bach’s day or now.  

Congratulations on performing the 100th different Bach Cantata at St Johns! How did it all begin?

During my postdoctoral studies in America, I observed that Boston and New York had a Bach cantata program. This was in the mid-1990s, when I also had my first chance to visit Leipzig, so a lot of things came together to put the idea in my mind. We approached the Victorian College of the Arts and proposed that we collaborate to present Bach cantatas with the students. Marco van Pagee, who was at the VCA at the time, was very enthusiastic and was able to get the support of the School of Voice and the leadership of the VCA. So we started off doing three cantatas with the VCA. With the momentum of that collaboration, it quickly became possible for the church to do other smaller cantatas with our own ensemble. Those things went happily side by side until the CA was amalgamated with  the University of Melbourne. There is still a residual of that link in the cantata in September, which is a collaboration between us and the Early Music Studio of the University. The program would not have started without the VCA. That certainly needs to be acknowledged. But the VCA went through a difficult time and we were grateful that by that stage the program had enough of its own momentum to keep going. 

And how have things changed over the hundred cantatas?

By the early 2000s, we decided that this would be a period instrument ensemble rather than a modern. That was a very significant change. Period instruments call for a style that emphasises agility, clarity and a lot more variation in the number of timbres. They’re softer, too, and they’re much more difficult to play in tune. We’ve purchased several period instruments, including a pair of oboes di caccia – a unique tenor oboe that Bach calls for. They were built to match and I think they’re the best in the country. 

And finally, can anyone come along to a cantata service and is there space for more audience members?    

Well, we don’t really need to advertise any more to get a substantial congregation but there is still room for people to attend. We are very aware that we have many visitors, some of whom may not have a strong connection with the church, and we want them to feel as comfortable as those who are regular members of the congregation.

To learn more about the cantata program, please visit http://www.stjohnssouthgate.com.au or call 9682 4995.

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