Of Johann Sebastian Bach’s huge legacy of compositions, his two surviving Passions – the St. Matthew and the St. John – are among the most ambitious in scope, grandest in scale and best-beloved among fans of choral music. The better-known St. Matthew Passion employs a double orchestra, a six-part choir and runs about 45 minutes longer. The St. John Passion, which will be performed at Bard College’s Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts this weekend, is almost a chamber piece by comparison. It calls for “only” a four-part choir and a smaller orchestra that in Bach’s time included what are now regarded as “ancient instruments”: oboe da caccia, lute, viola da gamba and viola d’amore, all known more for their intimate tones than for their dynamic power. Thus the singers have to carry more of the heft of this sacred oratorio.
But because its narrative is shorter and punchier, the St. John Passion (1724) is regarded by some as the more emotionally powerful of the two works. That narrative, based almost verbatim on Chapters 18 and 19 of Martin Luther’s translation of the Gospel according to St. John, has led to some controversy about this opus in the recent past. Since John the Evangelist was writing at a time when religious persecution was picking up momentum and the early Christians were trying to reach some sort of détente with their Roman overlords, the text downplays the role of Pontius Pilate in the conviction and crucifixion of Jesus, instead hammering away at the culpability of the Jewish hierarchy. Some 20th-century interpreters, such as the great Jewish conductor Lukas Foss, softened the language of the oratorio in places by replacing the German term Juden (Jews) with Leute (people).
Some commentators have also pointed out that in the chorale segments, which are based less literally on biblical text, Bach himself took pains to redirect the finger of blame at his contemporary Christian community. For his conception of the St. John Passion was that it should be an interactive “congregational” work. This means that with very few additions – an invocation at the beginning, a short sermon and a Paternoster in the middle and a blessing/dismissal at the end – it could be substituted for a full Lutheran liturgy, with churchgoers singing along during the full chorale sections. As a worship service, it was traditionally performed without any applause, even at the end.
Even though its subject matter is the grim narrative of events leading up to and including the crucifixion of Jesus, the work is noted for its triumphal tone. “One of St. John Passion’s most striking characteristics, which became particularly important in Lutheranism, is the view that Christ’s death on the cross was truly a spiritual victory,” comments Bard College visiting associate professor Peter Laki. Indeed, the dying words of Jesus, familiar to English-speakers as “It is finished,” come out closer to “It is accomplished” (“Es ist vollbracht!”) in the Lutheran translation. It’s hard to imagine a better acoustical environment than the Fisher Center’s Sosnoff Theater for a grand retinue of singers to convey these lofty emotions with the sense of conviction appropriate to this Lenten season.
Performing the St. John Passion this Friday and Saturday evening, March 1 and 2, will be members of the Bard College Conservatory Orchestra, conducted by Leon Botstein, with singers from the Bard College Chamber Singers and the Graduate Vocal Arts Program under the guidance of choral director James Bagwell. Two visiting artists will handle the primary solo parts: British/German tenor Rufus Müller, who has a long and deep track record voicing John the Evangelist in both Bach Passions, will star in the recitativo sections, frequently interrupted by arias and choruses. The choice for the secondary role of Jesus Christus is a bit of a departure from tradition, since the part is typically sung by a bass: Up-and-coming baritone Jesse Blumberg will perform the role at Bard.
By contrast with Müller, who has specialized in the Evangelist role through much of his career, Blumberg has an eclectic curriculum vitae, incorporating “new music” and the Great American Songbook as well as opera and Baroque choral works. A member of the Mirror Visions Ensemble, he has toured with Mark Morris Dance Group and the Waverly Consort in addition to performing internationally with symphony orchestras, opera companies and at music festivals. He’s also noted for being the founder/artistic director of the Five Boroughs Music Festival, which brings chamber music to every corner of New York City.
Supporting the two stars will be a group of more than 60 singers from the Bard College Conservatory Graduate Vocal Arts Program. Performing solos will be Logan Walsh as Pilate, August Bair as Peter, Brendan Beecher as the Servant and Emily Donato as the Maid.
Performances begin at 8 p.m., with a preconcert talk at 7 p.m. by Alexander Bonus. Proceeds from the concert benefit the Scholarship Fund of the Bard College Conservatory of Music. Suggested donations are $20 for orchestra seating and $15 for the parterre/first balcony. Admission is free to the Bard community with ID. For ticket information, contact the Fisher Center box office at https://fishercenter.bard.edu or call (845) 758-7900.
J. S. Bach’s St. John Passion, Friday/Saturday, March 1-2, 8 p.m., $20/$15, Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, Sosnoff Theater, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson; (845) 758-7900, https://fishercenter.bard.edu.