During my week in the Netherlands, the whole country was struck by a ‘rushing mighty wind' of up to gale force 11, which even the phlegmatic Dutch admitted had been rather inconvenient. Numerous trees were blown down over roads, and for the best part of a day there was no public transport at all. So I felt fortunate to arrive in Rotterdam, to attend an event I’ve wanted to witness for quite some time; the monthly 'Cantatedienst' at Sint-Laurenskerk, where a Bach cantata is performed, with full professional forces, as part of the Sunday night service.
Sint-Laurenskerk (or Grote Kerk) is the huge cathedral-size building, the only really old–looking thing visible in the centre of the city. Like everything else there, it was largely destroyed by German bombing in 1940, but unlike everything else nearby, was later restored in a historical way. After the service I enjoyed walking round what I think is called the ambulatory, the free space around the east end of the building, where there are some beautiful contemporary installations (see picture.)
In concert life it can seem difficult to programme Bach Cantatas. Often they consist of a magnificent overture and a good aria or two if you’re lucky, but then end up rather lamely, in concert-building terms, with a simple, bald chorale. It’s stating the obvious therefore that performing a Cantata (on this occasion BWV 72 Alles nur nach Gottes Willen) within a church service is exactly the right thing to do. In addition to Bach’s music, a sermon relating to its text was preached, there were bible readings and hymns relating to this, and even an organ prelude on the same chorale by Mendelssohn.
I was interested by my neighbours (of a wide age range including children) in the very full congregation who sang the chorales confidently, and followed both service and music with great absorption. Speaking to clergy members afterwards we learned that some people travel long distances to attend this monthly event, and that they are not the usual (smaller) congregation who show up for weekly services which follow a more regular pattern. Just as in English cathedrals, it appears that there’s a considerable group of spiritually minded people who however enter a church only with the encouragement of good music.