Sydney inSpires is Australia’s largest-ever ecumenical conference celebrating and growing all genres of church music. One of the highlights of the conference will be a performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s St Matthew Passion by the National Youth Choir of Australia and the RSCM Festival Choir at the Sydney Town Hall on July 12, with Robert Macfarlane as the Evangelist, Christopher Richardson as Christ, alongside soloists soprano Penelope Mills, mezzo Sally-Anne Russell, tenor Richard Butler and baritone David Greco. Limelight spoke to Sydney inSpires festival director Dr David Hill MBE, Principal Conductor of the Yale Schola Cantorum, who will conduct the oratorio.

David Hill, Sydney inSpiresDavid Hill. Photo © John Wood

As the Sydney inSpires festival director, why did you choose the St Matthew Passion for this festival?  

It was Ross Cobb [Music Director and Cathedral Organist at St Andrew’s Cathedral, Sydney] who was keen that it should be performed given the number of singers coming to Sydney. Also, it is a rare opportunity to present a work rarely performed in Australia and with period instruments. Might this be a first?

You’ve performed the Passion a number of times, especially with the Bach Choir in the UK and around the world. How will this performance be different?  

I have been fortunate to conduct the St Matthew Passion around 50 times and each one is different. The uniqueness of the Sydney performance will be the number of singers singing in the chorales (around 250?) which is exactly what Bach would have had in mind for the congregation.

How do you then make a piece you’ve performed numerous times stay fresh or different?

There are just so many layers of detail to access: its demands are such that there will never be a moment you can’t improve or change. For me, the most important dimension to any performance is the communication of text and entering into the drama of how Bach depicts the days leading up to Christ’s crucifixion.

Regardless of the choir or ensemble you work with, are there particular technical or musical aspects of that work that you always expect to deal with?  

A good question: rhythmic discipline is at the root of success and I would wish to instil that from the very outset. It is the rock on which the rest of the musical structure can be built. There is no music without rhythm.

This is your second time working with the NYCA and the music is an obvious departure from the contemporary 2016 season. What were some of your thoughts working with them previously and what do you think will be different this time?

I thoroughly enjoyed working with NYCA; a terrific organisation with talented young singers. I suspect the personnel will be different this time, though I am not sure of that. There are more singers because of the role they are taking in the Bach with two choirs. The number will be excellent for their own concert to which I am looking forward.

What are the pleasures and challenges of working with amateur and youth choirs?

I thoroughly enjoy working with all levels of singers. When it comes to youth it is their energy and commitment which is most engaging and fulfilling as a conductor. Because they are ‘hand-picked’ it is possible to be demanding whilst teaching and encouraging. Amateur singers will always respond to positive tuition and encouragement. I have always enjoyed the teaching aspects of being with amateur singers who are there to have fun: it is their hobby and we are all grateful for that!

What is your approach to working with new soloists in this work?  

I listen, respond and then look forward to hearing what a singer wants to bring to the music along with their artistry. It is the conductor’s role to lead the music and interpretation whilst enabling all involved to bring something of themselves into the process.

With the differences in experience between the soloists and choir/ensemble members, what are the biggest challenges in terms of finding the right balance in rehearsals?  

I’ll let you know! It is the conductor’s job to read situations and to ensure there is always a positive and productive climate. I am not a fan of pre-ordered rehearsals: a plan is necessary but good rehearsing comes from responding to what is happening as it is evolving.

What do you hope the audience and choristers will come away with at the end of this performance?

What is being undertaken is an enormous task: it should feel like a journey which culminates in a special three hours of musical and emotional experience for all involved as performers and audience.

Sydney inSpires runs July 6 – 14. David Hill conducts Bach’s St Matthew Passion at Sydney Town Hall on July 12