The Belfast Bach Consort is a group of musically-minded friends who gather once a month and perform a Bach cantata in the context of a church service.
When St Thomas' Church on Belfast's Lisburn Road re-opened after extensive restoration work it took the decision to make itself available for musical events in addition to its regular parish activities. It is a beautiful church and has been carefully restored, without modern intrusions but with the flexibility that non-liturgical uses can demand.
One of the groups that took up that opportunity was the Belfast Bach Consort which had recently been formed to perform J.S. Bach's extraordinary repertoire of some two hundred church cantatas, and St Thomas's has proved an ideal venue for them.
J.S. Bach wrote many of the cantatas to form part of the regular Lutheran services at St Thomas Church in Leipzig, and they are generally around twenty minutes long. They are usually performed today in concert form, often in a programme of three or four cantatas, but the Consort was keen to integrate them into church services to provide the context they were designed for. Bach wrote most of the cantatas for specific days of the Church year, and in effect they are mini-sermons.
Realising that twenty minutes of music sung in German was going to be demanding of a Belfast congregation, the Consort initially alternated the movements of the cantatas with parts of the service, but soon realised that breaking the music up was unnecessary and the continuous music now forms the major part of the evening service at St Thomas on the 3rd Sunday of each month. There has been no compromise on the German either - the cantatas are sung in German but translations are provided.
To many musicians J.S. Bach is possibly the greatest composer, for his sheer inventiveness and the range of his music from light dancing movements to utterly profound arias. Yet the cantatas are rarely performed, because they demand a wide range of instruments and are not a very satisfactory length for concert performance.
The Consort is flexible in its membership, the core of around ten string players and a four part chorus being boosted by additional soloists and frequently "obbligato" instruments who will duet with the singers, ranging from one or more oboes to trumpets and on occasion trombones or recorders.
And how did the Consort start? Some years ago a group of musicians came together in Belfast to perform one of Gilbert & Sullivan's operettas for fun, in one evening. That was so successful that they performed their ninth annual G&S event in June 2014, and in the same year the same group (at least many of the key members are the same, including organisers Andrea Rea and Marcus Patton) performed its 50th J.S. Bach cantata.