Musical prodigy takes on biggest challenge yet

Novice and professional singers to perform Bach masterpiece

Sat, Mar 23, 2013, 06:00

Killian Farrell is a young man in a hurry. He took up the piano aged six, started conducting in his teens, and staged his first orchestral production shortly after his Junior Cert year.

Now aged 19 – a veteran, really – he is on the brink of his greatest achievement yet: bringing together a blend of novice choristers and professionals to perform Bach’s complex masterpiece, St Matthew Passion .

One hundred singers, split between two adult choirs and a boys’ choir, combined with a 20-strong orchestra, will be at Farrell’s command on Monday in a rare performance of the work in Ireland. Why so rare? Mainly because the multi-layered music, interspersed chorales and arias, is considered “challenging” for an untrained audience, a point Farrell freely admits.

“I sang it when I was younger in the Palestrina choir and I remember hating every minute of it.” At the age of 15, however, his then teacher Ken Shellard gave him a box set of the Passions . “I hadn’t a big interest in Bach choral music but when I heard those recordings they really did change my life.”

Two years ago, he staged a performance of St John Passion , “the more manageable” of Bach’s two sacred oratorios, in his local St Pius parish in Templeogue, south Dublin, to celebrate its jubilee. “Our idea was to bring in a choir and an orchestra to perform it but it soon transformed into bringing together choristers from the local community, a lot of whom had never sung before and to train them up to performance standard.”

Jubilate Choir
For Monday’s performance, he has returned with this Jubilate Choir, complemented by another group of children from his alma mater, St Pius X National School.

Teacher Anne Purcell, who directs the school’s long-running music programme, says “initially I wasn’t sure what the uptake would be. I thought maybe 20 children would volunteer, but then 30 came forward and then it was up to 40.” As well as learning to sing “a very challenging work – in German”, she says they’ve had to contend with the novelty of a full orchestra and “competing” with an adult choir.

“It’s up a level from what they’ve done before. They are used to standing on stage and the audience focusing solely on them. But the score starts on page one and we don’t come in until page five, and then there’s another break, so you have to keep them focused.”

The children’s choir have been coming into school at 8am twice a week for practice in recent months, and there have been evening and weekend rehearsals too, the final one this afternoon. “It’s a big commitment but they are really excited about performing with professional singers.”

While she says the music is “more adult” than they’re used to, “it’s very powerful and I can see them swaying now, moving with the music and responding to it, which is lovely to see”.

There has been a financial commitment for the organisers, too. Employing the services of the Orchestra of St Cecilia and the likes of tenor John Elwes and soprano Roisin O’Grady, combined with logistics, has cost close to €20,000. But if they get a full house they’ll break even, and Farrell’s enthusiasm sweeps aside such practicalities.

‘Astonishing piece’
“When Bach first performed this piece of music he was really casting pearls before swine. His audience could not have realised he was creating one of the most astonishing pieces of music ever.”

The audience on that occasion, in Leipzig, Germany, on Good Friday 1727, had the added challenge of hearing the oratorio sandwiched between hours of unbroken prayer.

“It began at 7am, and after an initial service you had the first half of St Matthew Passion , then a two hour sermon, followed by the second half, and a good hour of further prayer. The congregation would have finished at about 3pm. We will not be subjecting our audience to that,” Farrell adds dryly.

Instead, he’s planning on a performance lasting about two hours and 45 minutes, with a 30 minute break, albeit the length of the piece is still “a point of some contention”, he admits.

Bach himself apparently performed St Matthew only two or three times and it was overlooked for many years until another precocious young talent, Felix Mendelssohn, rediscovered it at the age of 20 and directed a groundbreaking performance of the work in Berlin in 1829.

Farrell, who is a first-year music student at TCD, is already contemplating the next challenge. “I have a lot more plans if the choir will let me.”

While he is an accomplished pianist, he sees his long-term future in conducting, and Purcell acknowledges his strengths in this regard. “He is a super kid. To see how he has motivated people is amazing, his vision and enthusiasm and his ability to carry it through,” she says. “He is super musically but his people skills are fantastic.”

A little modestly perhaps, Farrell says, “I never had the technique to be a top-class piano performer and realised conducting was the route for me . . . I would love to move away to Germany or Austria and study to be an operatic conductor; there is a well worn career path there.”

Catch him while you can.

l JSBach St Matthew Passion will be performed at St Pius X, Templeogue on Monday, 25th March 2013. Tickets €25.