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Bach, the Universe and Everything

Feature

How do you spend your Sunday mornings? Farmer’s market,long lie-in, or church service? Crispin Woodhead of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment offers a new alternative, mixing Bach cantatas with modern physics

‘I can’t claim credit for this idea,’ confesses Crispin Woodhead, Chief Executive of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment: ‘It was Andrew Watts, our very brilliant principal bassoonist, who suggested that we try reimagining – not re-enacting – a Sunday service which included a Bach cantata, communally sung chorales and a stimulating secular sermon or lecture.’

It was an idea that resonated strongly with Woodhead, offering both the chance of – eventually – a complete survey of Bach’s  cantatas at Kings Place and an opportunity to juxtapose them with lectures by some of today’s leading thinkers, from fields as diverse as physics and psychiatry, medicine and politics.

‘Enlightenment thought is inspiring because it was a time of coherence not separation.’

He first encountered the works as a boy treble and then an organ scholar. A ‘watershed’ moment came with John Eliot Gardiner’s Choral Pilgrimage in 2000, when every cantata was performed at the correct point in the church calendar: ‘I think it was a big moment for many of us, witnessing the way they enact the theological dramas of the church year; the sudden recognition of how varied, refreshing, weird, and even excruciating they can be. But while the pilgrimage gave chronological context, there was no worship or focus on text – that was actually about the worship of Bach. What we want to do is give people a flavour of congregational engagement, without needing to be Lutherans. We’ll invite them to join the chorale singing, to reflect on inspiring discoveries and intellectual challenges, and to talk afterwards over coffee and cake.’

Written each week by Bach to fulfil his duties as a Kantor, these exquisitely wrought meditations on Biblical texts remain one of the great wonders of western music, an inexhaustible trove of art and ideas: ‘They are a distillation of human life experience, created by an artist working at such an intense rate over such a span of time, they form a complete expression of a people and its concerns: the crisis between body and soul, between seen and unseen, faith and doubt.’

In the first season, leading physicists will be invited to talk about their area of work, with the cantata’s theme as a jumping-off point: in January, for example, with the glorious New Year Cantata, BWV143, the theme will be current thinking on Time in unifying theories of the cosmos. In October, the dramatic Cantata, BWV109, sets up a dynamic tension between belief and unbelief, a tension common to physics, where a web of underlying assumptions govern experiments until they are overturned or consumed by new theories: ‘There’s no brute force needed to align metaphysics with physics,’ explains Woodhead. ‘The relationship between mathematics and counterpoint, and the ideas of an eternal order, the harmony of the spheres, links into the current search for a unifying theory of the cosmos.

People exaggerate the conflict between religion and science: there would be no such word as revelation if we could see everything in front of us. We’re constantly reminded of the mystery “that passeth human understanding” in both theology and in physics.’ For all the developments in science, we exist in a world apparently governed by rules of quantum mechanics, whose activity we can never consciously perceive, any more than the Lutherans could pinpoint divine influence.What thirst is Woodhead trying to quench? ‘I think there is a difficulty in extreme specialisation today. I’m always being told by people that they “don’t know enough about music” and feel that’s a barrier to attending concerts. And I find this in the scientific community too: people are so specialised, they feel ill-equipped to explore other areas, strands of work become isolated in silos and important connections are missed. Enlightenment thought is inspiring because it was a time of coherence, not separation.’

 

‘The cantatas are the complete expression of a people: the crisis between body and soul, seen and unseen, faith and doubt.’

Bach, the Universe and Everything, which launches in October this year, will be led and performed by principal players of the orchestra and by the Choir of the Enlightenment, but  also provides the springboard for another OAE initiative: Rising Stars of the Enlightenment. Eight gifted young singers at the start of their careers will work with the orchestra over two years, and sing the solos for the Sunday morning Cantatas. They include soprano Rowan Pierce, already well known in Baroque repertoire, and James Newby, who won the Kathleen Ferrier Award last year. ‘The sense of style and good practice they will learn from the OAE will be invaluable. Mark Padmore is patron of the scheme: his input is crucial in terms of taking singers and making sure they are equipped with good German in context. Mark’s the ultimate – he sells Bach in German to the Germans!’ Woodhead hopes this will become a regular monthly diary date, encouraging both the intellectually curious and musically open-minded to come together to create a new community. Hall One will be transformed into a 21st-century mixture of Leipzig’s St Thomas’s Church and Zimmermann’s Coffee House. HW

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