The New England Bach Festival, Benjamin Thorn

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The first New England Bach Festival was held in 2003. Benjamin Thorn, artistic director, tells Focus readers what we can expect from this year’s (and future) events.

When and why did the New England Bach Festival first begin in Armidale?

The first Bach Festival was organised in 2003, by organist and harpsichordist Terry Norman, who had an abiding interest in the music of Bach and felt that sharing this would be great for Armidale and the region. The second festival was a year later, and since then they’ve been every two years – which makes this year’s festival the eighth. That’s a pretty good track record of bringing some of the best Australian and a few international Baroque performers to Armidale.

What is your involvement with the festival?

I co-ordinated the performance of the Coffee Cantata in Hanna’s Arcade in the first festival and have been the Artistic Director of the festival since the third one in 2006. In the six festivals that I’ve directed, I’ve been concerned with a couple of important aspects. Firstly, to broaden the potential appeal of the festival by making it more than just historically informed performances of Baroque music, though that is always an important part of the festival. To this end, we’ve had jazz interpretations of Bach and the Baroque, new arrangements of Baroque works including the guitar duo version of the Goldberg Variations by EphenStephen, and contemporary works influenced or related to Bach, including some written specially for the festival. The other aspect has been to create new links between performers including getting local performers to perform with some of our visitors. Both these aspects continue in this years festival.

What can we expect to see at the Bach Festival this year?

Lots of cantatas! More than 200 of Bach’s cantatas survive, and five of them (numbers 56, 170, 188, 210 and 211) are part of the festival, along with Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater (which Bach incidentally adapted towards the end of his life) and Handel’s German Arias.

We’ve got some really interesting visiting artists. Natural trumpeter John Foster (Artistic Director of Australian Baroque Brass who have been to three previous festivals) will give a bright and brilliant opening to the festival in a concert with organist David Drury. This will include a new work I’ve written specially for him. David will also do a solo concert, which will include improvising on themes by local students. When he did this in the last festival, it blew the audience’s minds. Bach was known as a master improviser, and David almost seems to channel his spirit.

David will also be part of the Armidale Organ Crawl. Brisbane Baroque group Arioso (Judit Molnar, Margaret Caley, Belinda Mainwaring and Janet Brewer) are coming to perform Bach’s Wedding Cantata, the Handel German Arias and some violin sonatas. And finally there’s a fantastic cello and accordion duo (Rachel Scott and Anthony Schulz) who’ll give the Baroque a whole new sound world. Rachel will also be performing a solo cello suite.

We also have some great local performers, with Warwick Dunham playing the Poulenc Organ Concerto, making use of the new TAS organ, Ruth Strutt and Kylie Constantine singing the Pergolesi Stabat Mater, and being part of Cantata 188 with Greg McPhan and Elias Wilson, guitar duo EphenStephen (Steve Tafra and Steve Thorneycroft) and a wonderfully intriguing Baroque fusion concert called The Wondrous Machine (the title comes from a Purcell song which is included) featuring Ruth Strutt, Steve Thorneycroft, Steve Harris and Ash Hall. A special feature of this festival will be that every concert will be introduced with a Bach chorale sung by various groups.

We shouldn’t forget a number of free events in the festival. It is an important part of any festival to have events that reach out into the community and to broaden appeal and hellp build future audiences. The free events include our now traditional performance of the Coffee Cantata in Hanna’s Arcade and the Festival Evensong (with Cantata 56) but we also have a couple of informal late night performances in the Armidale Club – the Baroque Bar which will feature many of the festival musicians and others. This is an opportunity for local and visiting musicians to interact and play together in a relaxed environment. We hope that this will give anyone in Armidale a chance to experience part of the festival, and discover the joys of the Baroque, without having to commit to a full formal concert.

How can our readers book their tickets?

Tickets can be booked online through (go to their website and search for nebf to be able to book both season tickets and individual concerts) or you can get them through any Community Mutual branch.

Plans for the future?

If funding permits, the Bach Festival will continue exploring new ways to bring Baroque music to Armidale every two years. This is a unique town: the four organs within a block that allows the organ crawl to happen is just one aspect, and another is the number of fantastic musicians who live here; and the Bach Festival has become an important part of its cultural life.

Thanks Benjamin.

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