In July 2008, I went to visit a school in western NSW as part of a music programme I run for the Australian Children’s Music Foundation. On one very chilly morning I went into the year four class and asked the twenty-two children there if they had ever seen a cello before. There was silence. These ten year old kids could drive and shoot and were good little farm workers – but no-one had seen or heard a cello before. I had brought mine with me (I travel with a purple sparkly cello that Sydney kids have christened “Rocky”), so I got the children to lie on the floor of the demountable classroom (to feel the cello’s vibrations), and began to play. Like most cellists, I love Bach – so I started to play a prelude from the first cello suite.
And there was silence. When I stopped, a little freckle-faced boy sighed and said “That was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard”.
I kept playing – and those children lay there and just listened for six more movements. Both their teacher and I were transfixed by their reaction – it is one of those moments I will remember until the day I die.
It got me thinking. How many times have I played these suites, but not really listened to them? How many times have I played them in a concert, but people haven’t really stopped to be in the moment? And how could I create a concert where people could stop – and just listen?
In 2009, I began the series at St James Church – Sydney’s oldest church. An intimate audience would join me in the crypt (which, up to that date had never been used for concerts), and sit with a glass of wine, in the dark – so that nothing would distract them and both performer and listener would travel together for an hour. And I played Bach – to thank the children who showed me how to listen again.