Sunday, April 11, 2010

JS Bach's St. John Passion

I was privileged to be able to attend this wonderful telling of the events of the Gospel of John, chapters 18 and 19. Our Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, under the direction of Maestro Roberto Minczuk himself.

Here's the Calgary Herald review of the performance:

Here's my personal impression of the work, as recounted earlier to a sympathetic friend:

The St. John Passion was one of the most magnificent works I have ever heard. From the orchestra's opening bars from which flowed the first words of the choir (translated on the supertitles as, "Lord, our Ruler, Whose praise is glorious throughout the lands") I was drawn in to the praise and the anguish and the ultimate heavy triumph of the piece. Salvation purchased at great cost. My throat ached with unexpected emotion for much of the evening. Mary and I didn't even leave our seats during the intermission!

Indeed, this is no familiar, comforting Messiah. The masterly weaving of orchestra, choir, narrator, solos, and CHURCH CHOIR too (our Maestro had brought in some old church pews for the occasion, placed them at an angle on either side of the stage and peopled them with singers from another chorus) brings an intricacy and a depth that I feel the Messiah - for all its beauty and its glory - cannot plumb.

Our musical narrator, tenor Christoph Genz, was almost flawless. He was expressive and respectful of the music and message. He managed to differentiate clearly between his narrative voice and his tenor solos. At times when the choir was singing you could sense that he was champing at the bit to join in with them. At the end the soloists joined the choirs for one last hymn and Genz sang with gusto and obvious enjoyment.

One thing that surprised me was the absence of what I would consider typically Bach fugue patterns in the music. He clearly took risks and chose different avenues of musicality to obtain what some people consider his magnum opus.

The other part that bowled me over -- and if I wasn’t in the fourth row of the Jack Singer concert hall would have brought me wailing to my knees -- is the depth of treatment of Peter in the work. A huge amount is devoted to telling the story of Peter’s part in the horrors of that dark evening. He started off by lopping the ear of the soldier and later on is confronted by the relative of the man whose ear was displaced and re-placed. I wonder what that servant would have felt like hearing that one of this miracle worker’s friends was denying him? How Minczuk did it was get members of the chorus to represent the people who quizzed Peter. And we last see Peter slinking away, a broken man.

Part of why this had such impact on me is that I have been wrestling since the day after Palm Sunday with a piece for my blog on Peter and the ramifications of Easter (you can tell this is a fight as Easter is almost out of sight in the rearview mirror!). Bach made it all the more painful and real to me and has helped me move forward a little on what I need to write. Peter made things inordinately difficult for himself at times, I fear.

Speaking of obvious enjoyment - our Maestro, Roberto Minczuk, is apparently devout himself and this is one of his favourite works to perform and conduct. At the end of the performance he couldn't help himself: he stood there and clapped and clapped, for the orchestra, the choirs, the soloists, the audience, for God. It was very charming and very moving.

So, to summarize, I believe your friend is right. I adore the Messiah; but the St. John Passion challenged me in a way that the Messiah never has - musically, spiritually. I am now on the prowl for a good version to listen to as I drive.

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