KILLIAN FARRELL was only 15 when he first offered to produce and conduct a performance of Bach's St John Passion for his local church, featuring top international soloists, an orchestra, and a choir he would form and train for the occasion.
No doubt it was the foolishness of youth that persuaded him he could pull off such a feat. But there has been a lot of water under Templeogue Bridge since then and Killian is much older and more sensible these days. Although his dream will finally be realised this coming Good Friday in St Pius's Church, it will not be overseen by any mere 15-year-old. No indeed. The producer and conductor is all of 17 now.
Mind you, despite his advanced age, there are still certain indignities that this cross between Cameron Mackintosh and Zubin Mehta must share with other, normal members of his generation. For example, when on Thursday evening last I suggested ringing him in the morning to check a few details about his production, I asked – apologetically, but with a certain professional pride in my early working hours – if he would mind me calling at “9am”.
That's when he reminded me that, as well as conducting orchestras and choirs and top international soloists, not to mention trying to sell enough tickets to cover the €10,000 cost of the performance, he also has to go to school every day, in Templeogue College. Then there are the demands of the DIT conservatory of Music and Drama, where he studies piano and organ. For all I know, he may squeeze in a morning newspaper round too. In any case, he asked – even more apologetically – if I would mind ringing “before 7.45am”. Gulp.
Farrell attributes his love of choral music to the years he spent as a boy singer with the Palestrina Choir. How he acquired his extraordinary self-confidence is a deeper mystery. But whatever the explanation, when in late 2009 St Pius's was looking for ways to celebrate its forthcoming golden jubilee, the then 15-year-old stepped forward with his big idea. For as long as he could remember, he had wanted to be a conductor. Now was his chance.
Ambitious as it may seem, there was some pragmatism involved in the choice of St John Passion over Bach's other and better-known work in the genre, the St Matthew. St John was “much easier”, says Farrell. St Matthew would have required “two choirs, two orchestras, and double the budget”.
But even creating one choir was daunting. So far as possible, he wanted to involve people from the parish and, happy to provide whatever training they needed, he welcomed those who had never sung publicly before. It was, he admits, a struggle. The initial group of volunteers – with Biblical aptness, they numbered 12 – had shrunk to three by March last year.
So he tried again in May. Since when he has assembled a full complement, albeit having had to cast his net wider than the parish. Some singers now come from as far away as Clontarf. Most are newcomers to choral music, however, and few have any of the language in which Bach’s piece is written (although there is one German linguist among them – a big bonus).
What the choir may lack in experience, the soloists more than compensate. Farrell's achievements include landing the renowned English tenor and Bach specialist, John Elwes, who has a long and fascinating relationship with this country.
He was born John Hahessy, the son of a Carrick-on-Suir man who left Ireland in the 1940s to work on the buildings in London. The young Hahessy grew up in care, however, was later adopted and, aged 21, took the surname Elwes in honour of the family who had given him a home and a musical education. It was only when performing in Ireland several years afterwards that he researched the name “Hahessy” – unknown in England – and found his tribe in south Tipperary, where he ended up buying a cottage and living for many years.
Elwes will be joined next Friday by a cast of stars including Jeffrey Ledwidge as Christus, soprano Roisin O'Grady, counter-tenor Stephen Shellard, and tenor Andrew Boushell. Farrell will also benefit from the experience of his orchestra leader, Arthur McIvor of the RTÉ CO, who has been of “enormous help”.
Even so, it's still up to the boy himself to put all the pieces together. And if the performance is as coherent as he is, it will be good. Sounding far more mature that he has any right to be, Farrell says conducting is “25 per cent music and 75 per cent man-management”. He adds: “You have to earn the respect of participants by such things as knowing the score off by heart. After that, it's about trying to inspire people.” Nobody knows what makes a great conductor like the late Carlos Kleiber, who in a recent BBC poll was voted the best of them all by a jury of his peers. But whatever it is, Farrell thinks, it's something you can learn only from doing the job: not in college, or from a book. “You just have to throw yourself into it,” says the teenage maestro, who has certainly done that.
St John Passion by Bach will be performed at St Pius's Church, Templeogue, Dublin on Good Friday at 8pm, featuring John Elwes, Jeffrey Ledwidge, Roisin O’Grady, Stephen Shellard, and Andrew Boushell, along with the newly formed “Jubilate” choir.
(Picture and Article courtesy of Irish Times)