Bach can change your life…

Five years ago, I made a bucket list of works I wanted to have conducted – in five years. I can only say that I had no idea what it would cost me to realise those musical ambitions – and if I had, I’m not sure I’d have kept that dream alive.

But this week, with my completion of my first-ever Bach passion now ticked off – despite a smogasbord of challenges that some of you could never believe – the fulfilment that I am now experiencing is hard to describe in words. But I’m not writing a happy-go-lucky post to say how wonderful it is to achieve goals and dreams.

I’m saying that it is only after you have completed what you set out to do that you truly discover if this was what you were supposed to be doing. And as an increasingly popular modern saying has it: we can spend our lives climbing a ladder only to discover that we put it up against the wrong wall.

Wrong wall? Or wrong ladder? The intrinsic semantic specificities of that analogical framework are not our concern; I’m sure the point is made. For me, Bach has become something of a father figure as I look to grow who I am and how I want to work as a musician. Unlike his predecessor, Kuhnau, who was incredibly erudite and well-educated on a scary number of levels, Bach had an excellent formal education up to his late teens – but nothing beyond that. Having enjoyed more academic opportunities than many people – and being part of an ethnic minority community where ‘education’ is a passport to the promised land – what I call ‘Middle England’ (to be precise, I am referring to middle-class Anglo-Europeans) – I can see how all of that is supposed to work, but for my entire life I have looked at how people from all sorts of minority communities have used the letters after their names to demand status, and I am more appalled at this than I can say.

It gets worse – because this ‘worship of letters’ is all over the church. We should know better, but…

How does this relate to Bach? Well, he never really fit easily and comfortably into any of the places in which he found himself, and that astonishing period from 1723 to 1730 will remain an enigma forever as far as I am concerned. Kuhnau made an outstanding contribution to musical life in Leipzig and was a darling of the establishment for the rest of his life. But Bach was far, far too much for the ecclesiastical authorities, and despite the fact that his goal was nothing more than to write a ‘well-appointed church music’ – I am now going to make my own assessment of the reality – Bach’s music pointed to a God who was and is far bigger than the sanitised deity that archetypal liturgy had gotten used to. And those two monumental passions that remain will challenge conductors, soloists, chorus members and instrumental players for a very, very long time as yet.

Preparing to conduct the St John Passion has been the most formative experience of my conducting career to date. And it has changed the way that I think and work. It has forced me to confront the areas of my musicianship in which I am not as disciplined as I need to be if I’m going to work at the level for which I am striving. It has shown me that whatever I think I can bring to music and to early sacred music as an interpreter, I will receive more than I give if I am willing to accept that and be genuinely humble about it. It has shown me that my desire to make a difference inside the church walls is well and good, but the church is not about to become a more open and safe place for honest spirituality that is actually biblical – which means that the pursuit of truth in music will have to take place outside its walls. Bach is better loved, better understood, and better served by musicians who have no interest in confessional Christian faith, and I have one word for that:

SCARY.

It means that as a church (and this in the broadest sense of the word) we still don’t get it after all these years. I literally came apart at the seams trying to fight for better musical standards in my own church, and not understanding why God couldn’t just make it happen. But after conducting St John, I understood why God has let that door close.

The story of how this performance came off the ground is itself entirely epic. If it had not been for my best friend and project co-conspirator, it would never have made it. That person understood what this was better than my own parents who – 48 hours later – are beginning to realise just why I have refused to accept the standard and the attitude of church music-makers. My mother has believed for a long time that I have set my expectations too high, but the truth is more devastating – they weren’t high enough! And only in raising them have I now discovered more about who I am and how I am going to work.

This is not an end. This is now the beginning. And every single challenge, obstacle, doubter, hater, critic – and more – is something for which I want to publicly give thanks for. I have not become who I am because my life worked. I have become who I am because my life did not work and has not worked in more ways than most people can ever and will ever know. Sure, Bach had it worse than I did. He was orphaned by 10, lost his first wife, and buried ten of his twenty children. I’ve only lost my sister – but bereavement is bereavement and we don’t trivialise by reducing emotions to numbers.

My Evangelist was very, very unwell on the day of the concert, but by God’s grace he made it almost to the end. But his being indisposed at that point meant that I had to decide how we were going to end, and so I seized my vocal score (which I’d kept to hand on my stand just in case – previous experience) and read the final recitative – and the emotions I felt as I read those words were the most profound experience I’ve ever had onstage in a public concert. In that moment I was determined to become a better person. A more faithful Christian. A more exacting and disciplined musician.

Bach has changed my life. And now, I want to conduct (and hopefully record) as much of his sacred music as I can. But I’m more than a classical musician. I’ve always wanted to write a contemporary passion setting of my own but I knew I wanted to wait until I’d conducted one by J.S. Bach. And now that I have, I am inspired in ways I did not think possible.

But the only people from my own church who were present were my parents. And that’s okay. They now get it more than before, but the truth is that other people believed in me as a conductor and I had to somehow choose to leave doubt, fear and ignorance behind to press on with this journey of becoming a conductor. Last night I popped into a church to see if they were having a Bible study or something. Thought I might say hello to a few folks. But there was a choir practice taking place, and I just listened to it from a position where I could not be seen. 20 minutes later, the exact same verse had been rehearsed several times and was no better than when I had arrived. In the past, I’d have thought about trying to assist – particularly as I know the folks involved. But I left, knowing that having been very badly burned in my own church community with regards to music ministry, I cannot help these people anymore. I want to help – but they want the kind of help that takes no real regard for musical truth, and so it will never sound better. It will never be musical. After all the years of trying to inspire a higher standard of music-making, I know that what I did with this Bach performance eclispsed almost everything that I have ever managed to achieve with church people. And that’s one reason why Bach stopped writing sacred music – God was not less glorified in a second book of Preludes and Fugues, but only musicians can ever really understand how that works…

The greatest joy is ALWAYS as a consequence of the greatest sacrifice. This St John Passion project cost me – but it was worth it. It has been worth it. Oh, how it has been worth it. I hereby thank God, and everyone who played a part in helping this to come to fruition. And now, time for the next level…

As JSB himself would have said: Soli Deo Gloria!

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