In conversation with Erin Helyard
Erin Helyard joins the ACO for Intimate Bach this October. We sat down with Erin ahead of the tour to talk about his multi-faceted career, his connection to Bach's music and more.
You've had a very successful career and are quite the triple threat - conductor, performer and scholar. What has that journey been like?
I guess the one thing I am missing now is 'composer', isn't it?
The scholarly approach to my career came about from my interest in music of the past and how people played it and listened to it, which led me naturally to doing a lot of research. It has become a little less important in my life today, only in the sense that I am no longer a full time academic as I had been for the past seven years.
The conductor part came about because I, like many people of the past, find opera the most amazing genre and so I got into opera conducting. In regards to becoming a performer, like almost all of my colleagues who play the harpsichord, I actually started on the piano. My Mum had an upright at home and I started playing on that when I was about four and loved it. Of course, this was also pre-internet age and I just became absolutely fascinated by the piano and all the repertoire that was written for it. When I was 12 years old though I started to realise that the piano wasn't quite working for me. I had discovered that the piano didn't actually exist when the composers I loved, like Bach, Handel, the young Mozart and young Haydn were doing their thing. In fact, they were composing for the harpsichord. This then became the instrument I wanted to learn - it was amazing, sparkly, clear, golden, silvery and I was immediately attracted to it.
How did you discover classical music and come to love these composers?
I grew up on the Central Coast and the only way I could access music was through ABC Classic FM. I subscribed to 24 Hours, which was the national magazine that contained the schedule for ABC Classics FM, and I would sit down to highlight all the programs I wanted to record, set up my cassette tape recorder and time it based on the schedule. Through doing this I curated an enormous collection of music.
You've done a few tours with the ACO and it's really exciting to have you back for Intimate Bach. What's it like stepping from the role of conductor at Pinchgut Opera over to performer and soloist?
If I'm playing a solo it's actually a little more challenging than conducting in a funny way, even though conducting has more of a responsibility and is overall more stressful. As a soloist you really have to pull it off and be perfect every night and while I often find that it's a much higher level of control, I find it more satisfying.
This upcoming tour is a celebration of JS Bach's work. What does his music mean to you?
Bach is quite rightly regarded as one of the greatest geniuses of all time, in any of the performing arts. His music is exquisite and on a contrapuntal plane that is really beyond anyone else. I love Bach and I loved his music as a child, but in my early 20's I actually went through this anti-Bach stage. I was questioning his popularity as a composer when during his lifetime he wasn't as highly regarded. I realised pretty quickly after finishing my undergraduate that I had been shortsighted in my view.
I love playing Bach and I'm really looking forward to the tour. In fact, when Richard Tognetti asked me to play the Goldberg Variations last year with the ACO it was a completely cathartic experience and made me realise that my true calling was as a performer and not as an academic. That tour and Bach's music has really led me to change my life over the past year.
It might be difficult, but can you sum up Bach in one word?
Oh wow. This is hard! Do I get an adjective?
Bach's music is something you can really savour and relish.
One last question for you. What is your biggest passion outside of music?
History is my other love. I'm also a bit of a gym rat! Over the past few years, I've become obsessed with weightlifting. It helps my mental health, my sleep, and helps with my conducting.