I woke up at 4.30am on December 28 2015 with an idea for a Bach orchestra. I had been wanting to find some way of coming back to Australia that would be as musically satisfying and rewarding as all the wonderful performing I had been doing for nearly two decades in Europe.
Madeleine Easton. Photograph © Steven Godbee
The idea of a period instrument ensemble dedicated to Bach was perfect. I would control my own musical destiny and perform these wonderful works in exactly the way I felt them.
I definitely had many people say to me that it would never work, I would never get the funding or support that I expected or that I had come to see as normal over in Europe. “Australia just doesn’t work like that”, they said, but I was never in any doubt that it would work.
The English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir were good models for the sort of ensemble and choir I wanted to create. The way the musicians are chosen, each hand-picked from around the globe and each an expert on their respective instruments was a great inspiration. Many other countries have their own dedicated Bach ensembles: the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra made their name recording the cantatas with Ton Koopman, the Bach Collegium Japan, the Stuttgart Bach Akademie and The Netherlands Bach Society, for example. The list goes on.
Why shouldn’t Australia have something similar?
From humble beginnings three years ago staging a single strings house concert, we have grown into an ensemble of leading Baroque musicians performing regularly in venues such as St Patrick’s Cathedral in Parramatta, Christ Church St Laurence and the City Recital Hall.
Initially, running Bach Akademie Australia remotely from London while managing a full-time freelance performing and teaching career was certainly challenging, however my gut feeling that it would work never wavered.
I feel there will always be a need for Bach in our lives. I feel this as a musician and a music lover. His music comforts the heart and soul, stimulates the intellect, makes us laugh and reflect on the tragedy and joy of the human condition in all its forms. For me, what we can take from Bach is the same as what we can take from Shakespeare, a true genius who could weave into masterful prose the human and spiritual condition, just as Bach weaves the deepest, most profound sentiments into every note.
As a violinist, I began to study and perform Bach when I was relatively young. At the Sydney Conservatorium High School, I began to study his harder repertoire, the solo sonatas and partitas as well as his violin concerti. By the age of 22, with a scholarship to the Royal College of Music, I was in London where I was incredibly lucky to perform a multitude of repertoire ranging from Monteverdi to Messiaen with many wonderful ensembles and orchestras.
In 2003, I joined the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique performing Berlioz’s mighty opera The Trojans, and have hence performed and recorded almost all of Berlioz’s operatic and symphonic repertoire with the wonderfully exacting Sir John Eliot Gardiner. My journey with this orchestra also included recording all of the Beethoven and Brahms symphonies as well as many of the adored Mozart symphonies and masses with the English Baroque Soloists.
Bach Akademie Australia at the 2019 Canberra International Music Festival. Photo © Peter Hislop
However, it was when I began performing Bach and discovered the multitude of wonders contained in his cantata and oratorio repertoire, that I found my true musical love.
Delving into this repertoire as a director revealed ever more wonders of compositional genius, symbology, numerology and word painting. It was if I had been blind, then one by one, fantastic coloured lights began switching on, lighting up my musical and spiritual world. For me, it was like looking into a perfect crystal prism, perfect on the outside and shining with multifaceted colour from within.
Over many years working with the English Baroque Soloists, I have learnt so much from Sir John Eliot Gardiner. He is completely uncompromising in his attitude to Bach’s music and text. He is fluent in German and understands not only the language but the inner symbolism of every word and how it translates into the way Bach represented the text in the instrumental music. And John makes every member of the choir and orchestra live every word and note. It is quite inspirational to watch and participate in.
More than any other composer I can think of, Bach’s music also most reflects the natural world around us. Nature is always in balance. Every plant and creature on the planet knows its place within this world (except humans perhaps). The seasons know exactly when to change. Bach’s music is the same: always utterly in proportion, never a note out of place, a piece never too long, too overblown or out of context. He knew instinctively how to compose, as if nature itself was in the brush strokes of his ink on paper.
After all, Bach grew up in Thuringia (Eisenach), surrounded by nature and near those large black forests steeped in history and superstition. They must have influenced him – as well as, of course, being born into a family of extremely well-respected musicians. But whether it’s nature or nurture, it’s certainly true that Bach never wrote an unnecessary or ill-considered note, just as nature simply does not create the unnecessary or ugly.
His sense of time, place and occasion is remarkable. Take the Cantata BWV 151 titled Süsser Trost written in 1725 for the third day of Christmas, which BAA will be performing in our upcoming concert Comfort and Joy – Cantatas for Christmas. It was conceived to perfectly reflect the sentiments of sweet comfort bestowed upon the human race with the arrival of baby Jesus.
Bach Akademie Australia in 2017. Photograph © Nick Gilbert
In the opening movement, Bach chooses a single soprano voice coupled with the pastoral beauty of a flauto dolce to musically illustrate the tender and gentle love bestowed upon this tiny child, the saviour of the human race. He was just as capable of conjuring utter joy and inspiration in his listeners, as in his Cantata BWV 191 Gloria in excelsis Deo. Also written for Christmas, its blazing trumpets, flutes, oboes, strings and full choir cannot fail to uplift and exult one’s spirits.
As a violinist, I have the daily joy of being with Bach’s music, and holding it close with my 1682 Giovanni Grancino violin. I remember the day I made the appointment at the famous J.A. Beare and Sons shop in London to try out a few instruments as if it was yesterday. A few of my dearest friends who knew what they were talking about when it came to fine violins agreed to come with me. There were a few really beautiful instruments laid out for me to try, but the minute I picked up the Grancino and played, the room fell silent. When I’d stopped, my friends all said, “that’s it, that’s your violin.”
I am now resident back in Australia and after three years building and growing Bach Akademie Australia, I feel completely happy with my musical mission to bring the great works of the monumental genius J.S. Bach to life here at home. The word ‘Akademie’ is no accident. I have an immense opportunity to help educate and inspire future generations of students interested in Bach and historical performance practice.
I have many dreams for the future, including Bach Akademie Australia touring internationally, performing at the great early music festivals of the world and showcasing the very best of Australian Baroque talent. I am certain it will happen.
Madeleine Easton and Bach Akademie Australia’s Comfort and Joy – Cantatas for Christmas is at Christ Church St Laurence, Sydney on November 29, St Patrick’s Cathedral, Parramatta on November 30, and Holy Name Church, Wahroonga on December 1