Gillian Keith Soprano

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Friends Reunited: Saying ‘Yes’ to Bach and Mendelssohn

Last week I had two unexpected, but welcome musical experiences. In each case I didn’t hesitate to say ‘yes’, and in each case I found music from my past, ready to rise to the surface.

Bach’s ‘Singet dem Herrn’ has got to be one of the most amazing musical experiences for listener and singer alike.  I remember my first encounter – as a student in Toronto – and that singing this motet lit a fire inside me, making me fall even more deeply in love with the music of dear old J.S. That same spark was lit afresh as a member of the Monteverdi Choir a few years later. (Perhaps a more stressful performance experience, but we were making live recordings, after all!)

Fast forward a few more years, and its rhythmic effervescence still sends me into raptures, as the tender chorale gives way to the inevitability of the euphoric final movement. But these days, my career as a soloist means I have fewer occasions to experience that particular pleasure of performing as a consort singer.  So when director Tom Guthrie asked if I’d like to take part in his staging of three Bach motets, I said yes, yes, yes. Oh, the joy this music brings! Oh, the life-affirming perfection of it! And what a magical, skilled piece of work was GOT Company’s staging. I am so grateful to have taken part.

Surprise number two – and another chance to say ‘yes’- came in the form of a recital with Simon Lepper at The Abbey School in Reading – news that an unwell soprano needed to be replaced.  Last-minute performances can be stressful, but also very liberating. In this case, I had 24 hours to prepare a 40 minute programme of songs by Mendelssohn, Debussy and Strauss.  How long since I had sung Mendelssohn’s ‘Die Liebende schreibt’? Probably a dozen years, if not longer, most likely as a student in a song class. But it was there, resting in a shady corner of my mind, and came flooding back when summoned, as fresh as the day I first sang it. Such a happy surprise to find myself performing it with Simon again.

My voice has developed over the past decade – for the better, I think. It doesn’t always behave in the way I expect, especially when revisiting a work from my past, and sometimes we need to get reacquainted. But that’s the nature of such an intimate relationship, isn’t it? I sing with more layers of experience, and hopefully a bit more wisdom. As for the music itself, we have all come to know pieces that are printed on our memories with a more permanent ink. Music that has a long-lasting effect on our lives. We can draw it out from deep within our hearts – like old friends waiting to be reunited – and perhaps another chance to say ‘yes’.