April 20, 2014

FROM THE ARCHIVES: THE HIGHER CALLING:

Bach's Passions Are Revealed From Different Angles (ANTHONY TOMMASINI, 4/11/06, NY Times)

Imagine how different the history of music might have been had Bach been interested in opera. Suppose that instead of heading to Leipzig, Germany, in 1723 to become the cantor at the St. Thomas Church, he had settled in Dresden, where audiences had an insatiable passion for Italian opera.

But Bach had a higher calling: composing music for the church. In a letter to the Leipzig town electors he promised church music that "shall not last too long" and "shall be of such a nature as not to make an operatic impression, but rather incite the listeners to devotion."

Well, Bach did not entirely adhere to those goals in two of his colossal masterpieces, the "St. John Passion" and the "St. Matthew Passion." Neither is remotely an opera. Instead, the story of Jesus' crucifixion is mostly told by the Evangelist, and the narrative is regularly interrupted with timeouts for ruminative arias and reflective chorales.

Still, these scores abound with such visceral drama and operatic sweep that directors have periodically been tempted to stage them. Complete productions with costumes and scenery never succeed. But for the "St. Matthew Passion," the director Jonathan Miller, aided by the conductor Paul Goodwin, found a halfway approach. Mr. Miller dressed the chorus and orchestra members in everyday modern clothing and placed them in a circle so that they could face each other and enact the story while they performed it.

When presented at the Harvey Theater of the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1997 and 2001, Mr. Miller's staging of the "St. Matthew" proved a revelation. It returned on Saturday night in a singable English translation based on Robert Shaw's, with Mr. Goodwin conducting.

For contrast, on April 4 at St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue, Bach lovers had a chance to hear the "St. John Passion" presented much the way the composer had intended: performed as a sacred work by the church's renowned choir of men and boys, with strong soloists and a fine ensemble of period-instrument players, Concert Royal. John Scott, the organist and director of music at St. Thomas, conducted.

Just hearing these two works within five days -- the "St. Matthew" so noble and severe, the "St. John" more volatile and graphic -- was privilege enough. The opportunity to compare these very different approaches was another enticement.


[originally posted: 4/15/06]

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Posted by at April 20, 2014 12:00 AM
  

These are the advantages of living in the proximity of the Big Apple, and at times, they far outweigh the disadvantages.

Posted by: erp at April 15, 2006 9:58 AM
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