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March 9, 2021

A Passion for Music

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Performed by the Amatori choir, orchestra and soloists. These concerts will include arias and chorales from St Matthew’s Passion and Samuel Barber’s sublime Adagio for Strings.

Amatori was formed by Ian Knowles about 18 years ago in Mullumbimby. The name comes from amare… to love. It was named in honour of those who perform for the love of it. It was firstly a choir singing a capella. About 10 years ago an orchestra was formed and, together under the direction Ian Knowles, they perform many oratorios, masses, opera choruses and instrumental concertos.

This weekend they present The Passion According to St Matthew by JS Bach, and Adagio for Strings by Barber. Ian Knowles spoke with The Echo about how they make the music.

Tell me a little about the history of the Amatori choir?

Around the turn of the century (not the 19th), finding that amateur singers tended to come to rehearsals when they didn’t have anything better to do, I chose a small group of people who would come every week and could read music for a 12-week project to do a missa brevis of Mozart and then a short mass of Schubert. We called ourselves Amatori (which means amateurs – or those who do it for love). My aim was to improve the standard of singing with each concert, and to give the singers and audience the opportunity to actually participate in the most beautiful and accessible music that western civilisation has produced. I regard the great composers – Bach, Vivaldi, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert et al – as our ancestors, and now that commercial music dominates every space, our souls have few places to be fed by the finest traditions that we have. Classical music is very personal. Everyone at a performance can go into their own world of feelings and images, and take away that portion of isolated time as their own personal experience.

And the orchestra?

After a few years of Amatori’s being entirely a capella, I formed a student orchestra of 12 competent players to accompany the choir and play little orchestral pieces. With this orchestra we performed a Mozart piano concerto, an opera, and works such as Vivaldi’s Gloria.

As new people joined, we had to became an auditioned choir in order to keep up the standard of singing expected my me, the long-term singers, and the audiences. Amatori is currently composed of about 25 singers coming from all over the Shire and an orchestra of 17 players.

As the student orchestral players passed year 12 and left the area, and some adult players appeared in the area, we evolved into the lovely current chamber orchestra that reached its peak over the last two years performing Faure’s Requiem, a Bach cantata, Bach’s double violin concerto, Britten’s Simple Symphony and a number of Baroque and Classical concertos for violins, oboe and flute.

What are the challenges of preparing a performance like this one?

Firstly I needed to reduce it to less than 90 minutes. This needed careful editing over two months to prepare a score for the choir and orchestra. It needed to be a quantity that the choir could learn in half a year yet retain the balance of narration, solos, and choruses needed for the high drama of the story.

We have a lovely group of players: 12 strings, two flutes, two oboes and organ.

We also have fine local soloists: two sopranos, alto, tenor, and bass for all the major parts except the bass arias. We found two more lovely basses in Brisbane,

Preparing a work like this means many rehearsals for soloists with various bits of the orchestra. There is much homework for all concerned. I calculated about 1,000 person-hours in addition to private practice.

Music like this needs people who give the music a high priority in their lives, and I have enormous gratitude that this is the case here. I ask a lot of time from people, and they give it, I assume, because they want the best result.

Why have you chosen St Matthew’s Passion? Can you tell me a little about it?

This work is written as a dramatisation of the story of Jesus’s betrayal, denial, trial, and crucifixion.

While written to be performed in Bach’s church on Good Friday, it has become a truly humanist work. I see the Passion story as the western counterpart to the Indian Ramayana, The Niebelungenlied (the ring on which Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is based), or any other of the great myths that are retold over hundreds of years because they embody all the human traits of betraying our fellows in our greed, denying our friends and beloveds in our fears of the consequences of standing by them, while feeling the remorse and guilt for our shortcomings as people.

These great myths are 100 per cent relevant to today. Good and innocent people are crucified  by ‘business interests’ that cannot stop the momentum of their material pursuits. People who could stand by them wash their hands as surely as Pontius Pilate, and people and governments set their Barabasses free to destroy the environment and continue uncivilised behaviour rather than make a stand for the voices of sanity.

After the most beautiful opening chorus, turbulent twistings and minor and major keys (most difficult for an amateur choir to master), Bach uses a tenor to relate the story in recitative, accompanied only by cello and organ; the main character, Jesus, always has a small group of strings surrounding his words, but the crowd (choir) reacts on behalf of the audience, sometimes with a chorale of sympathy with Jesus’s suffering, ‘O wondrous love that suffers this…’, sometimes with outrage, ‘Have lightnings and thunders forgotten their fury?’ (why don’t the heavens stop these atrocities).

Interspersed with all this are melting or strident arias that give time for the audience to feel their personal response to the action. The five chorales interspersed through the story would have been well known to the congregation in Bach’s time, and would have served for the audience to identify even more with the Passion, sometimes pledging themselves not to give in to the human failings visible before them.

Do you need to have religious belief to enjoy it?

Certainly not. Anyone who dares to feel their own emotions will be moved by this. While a Christian might be more familiar with the story, for me it is like watching Greek tragedy, the stuff of which we all are made, warts and all, and Bach’s aim was that we look at ourselves, and see ourselves in all these characters.   This type of music is the means of taking us outside of daily time, and giving us 90 minutes to reflect, be moved, and then take home a package of time in our being that can be drawn on to apply in the future. Also featured is the beautiful Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber, a fitting 9-minute overture to the concert, itself having been used as a requiem on numerous occasions.

Saturday at Mullumbimby Civic Hall, 3.30pm. Sunday at the A&I Hall Bangalow, 3.30pm.

Tickets are $25 / 20 with kids for $10. Available Mullumbimby Bookshop, Art Piece Gallery Mullumbimby and Barebones Artspace in Bangalow, or at the door.

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