Love Beyond Measure: The St. John Passion

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We’re very excited about our Spring Concert, which will be a performance of Bach’s masterwork, the St. John Passion, BWV 245, this coming Sunday, March 20th, beginning at 4 pm (though you should definitely plan to attend the pre-concert lecture, offered by Greg Funfgeld, beginning at 3), at the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem.  Tickets are available online from http://www.bach.org until early Friday afternoon, March 18th, and will also be available at the door on Sunday.  One element of the performance that we find especially compelling is that it will be offered on the afternoon of Palm Sunday, at the dawn of Holy Week.  Those of us in the Choir who are church musicians and clergy were a little concerned, initially, about an afternoon performance of work so technically, emotionally, and physically challenging, but the opportunity to experience all that it offers in the context of Holy Week soon won us all over.  Here are three of our members who are clergy, reflecting on the work:

There seems to be a scholarly pushback against the long-held notion that Bach’s St. John Passion lives in the shadows of his even more expansive setting of that of St. Matthew, and, indeed, our estimable and learned program annotator, Robin Leaver, explores these comparisons in his notes for this performance (Dr. Leaver’s program notes are wonderful introductions to the pieces we perform, by one of the world’s leading Bach scholars).  If you’ve read John Eliot Gardiner’s remarkable tome, Music in the Castle of Heaven, you may recall his conclusion about the St. John:

“It is as bold and complex an amalgam of storytelling and mediation, religion and politics, music and theology as there has ever been, and a climactic manifestation of the spirit of musical drama.”

I think I favor the work for personal reasons (it was the first of Bach’s two surviving Passions that I encountered as a child), but also because of its photo-realistic text-painting, which is cinematic in its evocative power.  Bach prevails (one might say overtakes) our imaginations with music and drama that are so instantly compelling that there are moments in performance that bring the events described in the work vividly, almost eerily, to life before all of us.  As the student of a classical education, Bach would have been well-versed in the Greek ideals of rhetoric and drama, and his apparent mastery of those disciplines are fused with his peerless compositional abilities, and, not least of which, his abiding faith.  The result is a work that easily earns all of the superlatives and more, and, like his Mass in B-Minor and St. Matthew Passion, sit at the summit of his oeuvre.

I had a conversation with the lovely Erika Funke of WVIA Radio about my first experience of Bach’s choral music as a young fan of the Choir, and, in particular, the St. John Passion, as well as some of my favorite elements of the music, which the station has archived into a podcast, which I’ll share below:

Greg Funfgeld has assembled a magnificent group of vocal and instrumental soloists for what’s sure to be a memorable performance of some of Bach’s most powerful music.  Please plan to join us!

 

 

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