Chamberfest: Stephan MacLeod and Gli Angeli Geneve take a deep dive into Bach

Gli Angeli Geneve as conducted by Stephan MacLeod.

There are some 210 cantatas written by Johan Sebastien Bach.

How long would it take to sing all of them?

Well, for the Swiss early music ensemble Gli Angeli Geneve, it’s 12 years so far and counting. And they’ve got about 120 done in concert. So, Stephan MacLeod estimated in a phone interview, the group has another decade to go.

The artistic director and founder of Gli Angeli is not deterred. After all he started this endeavour with an eye on attracting public attention in Geneva, Switzerland. And Bach does draw a crowd.

When he founded Gli Angeli, MacLeod had had a successful 15 year singing career under his belt and he was looking for a new challenge in his hometown. If you ask him, MacLeod will tell you he does not consider himself to be a Baroque musician but:

“Of course, I have specialized in this music because I have been doing it for so long, but it is not the only thing that I do.” No indeed. But Gli Angeli does take up about half of his musical life. The rest involves teaching and his active career as a guest soloist and conductor.

Gli Angeli will be in Ottawa for the first time on Aug.1 for a performance during the Chamberfest.

Stephan MacLeod

MacLeod will bring 12 musicians and eight singers with him. They will be doing a selection of early Bach cantatas. The group will also head to Vancouver to participate in a Bach festival and then some of the performers will break off for their own shows.

That kind of flexibility suits MacLeod.

Gli Angeli is “kind of an all star ensemble where a lot of brilliant soloists with solo careers meet to make chamber music together. For that reason it is often the case that when we are travelling a few of our members are hired to do other things.”

This all star cast was what MacLeod had in mind when he founded it.

“I had a clear idea how I wanted to work and with whom I wanted to work.”

He also wanted to serve as a vehicle for young talented players in Geneva to learn and test themselves with more experienced players.

So “the group is not a 100 per cent fixed thing where people always have to be part of every Gli production. I was aware that if I wanted the best players I would have to compromise.”

So far, so good, he said. “Good musicians seem to want to play with us and that’s always a great compliment. But as far as I am concerned what matters the most is that the people who play with us are our friends and that we get along together.”

In many ways the mentoring side of Gli Angeli is a way of giving back, he said.

“I started very young in this business. I understood quite quickly how much confidence and experience I gathered early in my life and my career thanks to the fact that I was lucky enough to be hired to sing with fantastic musicians.

“It’s important that we give young promising people opportunities to work at a very high level as soon as we can,” he said.

That doesn’t mean standards slip and expectations are lowered, he said.

“The best way to do good music is to convince everybody that they are allowed to have high expectations. There is no limit to artistic ambition.

“It has to be fun, but when you get together you want the result to be special.”

In addition to attracting an audience, MacLeod says performing the Bach cantatas provides the musicians with constant exposure to amazing music, much of which is not played all that much.

“Some of the cantatas are very well known, but with 210 of them, there are always works that surprise people in every concert.”

Gli Angeli does do other music, too.

“We have also started performing earlier German composed music. And in the past two years we have been doing later classical repertoire. For example, we have started to play all the Haydn symphonies in Geneva.” And they have done some Mozart works. They will tackle the Brahms Requiem and they will record some bigger Bach pieces starting with the St, Matthew Passion.

This intense exploration of Bach is a true musical education, he said.

“You have the impression that you get in deeper every time. In a way you feel you are allowed to enjoy the genius and have your jaw hit the table over how incredible it is. I would be extremely pretentious to say I understand this music, but that said, there is no need to play Bach with a complex or a lack of confidence.”

One thing Macleod likes to show is how much dance inhabits anything Bach has written.

“It is astonishing to me. It is the richest music rhythmically ever. That is in Bach all the time.”

A Swiss guy named MacLeod begs a question.

“My father was the MacLeod. I was born and raised in Geneva but my father was the chief of the clan. He lived in Geneva for six years where he met my mom.

“They had me, but he was caught by family duties and had to return home to run the family castle and lead the clan. I didn’t grow up with him.

“We got very close when I was a teenager.” And they stayed close. These days, his half-brother leads the clan and Stephan MacLeod, proudly wearing his kilt, is a regular visitor to the family castle on the Isle of Skye.

Gli Angeli Geneve
Where: Dominion-Chalmers United Church
When: Aug. 1 at 7 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.