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Bach in the real world

As part of A Bach Christmas, we wanted to get out into some 'real' places with Bach associations: a coffee house, a school and a prison.

Coffee House
Bach wrote music to perform in Zimmermann's Coffee House in Leipzig, so we staged a concert in a London coffee house (Troubadour in Earls Court) with a violin concerto and the Coffee Cantata. Guest soloists Kati Debrezeni (violin), Pippa Goss (soprano), Matthew Beale (tenor) and Alex Ashworth (bass) joined members of the Royal Academy of Music Baroque Orchestra, directed from the harpsichord by Laurence Cummings.

School
Bach wrote a fair bit of 'educational' music - mainly as teaching pieces for his sons and his second wife, especially in two books he compiled for Wilhelm Friedemann (his eldest son) and Anna Magdalena (the singer who was Bach's second wife). So we did an education project at All Saints' RC School in York, where we used this music (and a few other pieces) to unpack ideas about Bach's music and to spark off improvisations and compositions by a group of 11 students (age 15-18) using some of the same techniques as Bach. The day ended with a performance for an audience of other students: the students played/sang the pieces they'd created, plus some Bach in unusual arrangements, and there were a few bits of straight Bach. Pianist David Owen Norris devised and led the project, and Catherine Bott – who presented all three events for the concert audience and on Radio 3 – also appeared in her other role, as singer.

Prison
Bach was clapped in gaol for a month in 1717 by the Duke of Weimar because he'd signed a contract for a new job in Cöthen. So we did a gig in HMP Brixton. There's evidence that while Bach was inside, he worked on Book 1 of the Well-tempered Clavier. So harpsichordist Laurence Cummings played a couple of Preludes and Fugues from that book and directed the Royal Academy of Music Baroque Orchestra in the  Brandenburg Concerto no.2 (with guest trumpeter Simon Munday) and the Cantata 'Ein feste Burg'. There's a great Victorian chapel at HMP Brixton so the acoustic was fine. We teamed up with the organisation Music in Prisons (The Irene Taylor Trust) who taught a group of the prisoners ('The Brixton Angels') to sing the final Ein feste Burg chorale alongside our four guest soloists: Pippa Goss, Alexandra Gibson, Matthew Beale and Alex Ashworth. The audience was made up of other prisoners. Judging by the reaction of prisoners at the end, they all found it a great experience.

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