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"Doreen Rao is a dynamo--a vivacious, energetic, dedicated choral director."
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Doreen Rao

Interviews

An excerpt from an interview conducted between Doreen Rao and  John Terauds of the Toronto Star, in which they discuss her approach to teaching and performing the music of J. S. Bach in the world today. This interview was published in the Toronto Star on Saturday, October 14, 2006 as part of the article “Annual festival big on Bach Composer’s name rare in concert programs But fans continue to champion his music”


Rao settles comfortably into her office chair at University of Toronto’s Edward Johnson Building. Her office, piled high with books, musical scores, papers and mementoes, smells of incense.

“It’s from Bhutan,” she says, with a smile and a wave of her arms. She possesses an air of being at peace with the world, even with throngs of demanding students beyond her door.

As the conversation deepens, Rao’s voice rises in pitch, her eyes sparkle. Within minutes, she is leaning forward with the fire of a true believer.

Rao describes the festival as creating “a circle around Bach that crosses the boundaries of the secular and the sacred in the same way that his music does.”

She details why she feels his music remains relevant in all ages: “Bach is the perfect intersection between the old and the new, the ancient and the modern. What a wonderful message that sends to us today (when) looking to the past and looking to the future.”

This inclusiveness extends to people of all ethnicities, says Rao.

“When I see my young students, who have never sung Bach, light up like a candle when they read through some of these chorales and choruses, I think, wow, I guess it really does make a difference in their lives,” she says. “Why can’t the audiences also not feel that way?”

To make the beauty of Bach accessible to as many people as possible, the festival has information as well as music.

“People can actually come for the afternoon and by going to the lecture and then to the open rehearsals, get insight not only into the composition and the music itself, but also the drama and, very importantly, the way in which artists go about learning the material.

“It is an insight not only about the material itself but also the music-makers who bring that humanity to the performance.  Then, by the time you get to the 6 o’clock concert, you’re set.”

Rao loves how beautifully the words and music work together.

In his 1904 preface to Albert Schweitzer’s landmark study of Bach’s music, the great French composer and organist Charles-Marie Widor wrote how his eyes were opened when he first saw Bach’s St. Matthew Passion: “Everything explained itself and became illuminated, not only the great themes of the composition but also the tiniest detail. Music and poetry were intertwined, each musical sketch met up with a literary idea… the whole became to me a series of poems of unequalled eloquence and emotional intensity.”

Rao had the same experience while directing the children’s chorus for a Chicago Symphony performance early in her career.

“These children’s voices, that was the draw,” she says, beaming. “You had this 19th-century sound around you and suddenly you heard the children singing the cantus firmus and then, oh… my… God,” she drops to a whisper, “there’s Bach.

“From then on I knew I wanted to hear children singing Bach. I started editing melodies and duets from the cantatas and feeding them to choirs for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

Rao walks over to shelves lined with binders containing hundreds of scores she continues to edit and prepare for publisher Boosey & Hawkes.

“When I started my life as a conductor and teacher, I believed that the greatest music could belong to every child… One of the things I had to carry out in my life was how to translate the greatest musical ideas of our time to belong to the children… introducing Bach, Britten and Bartok to young people in a steady diet.”

Rao says children take instantly to Bach music. It’s less adventurous adults who sometimes aren’t willing to give it a try. Perhaps this is the week to change that.