If you’re going to tell a story, then telling the 2,000-year-old story of Jesus’ crucifixion with five vocal soloists, choir and orchestra is a good way to start. In 1724 Johan Sebastian Bach did just that for the two Leipzig churches he was employed by – and succeeded in a big way. Articles, theses, whole books have been written on the subject of how the baroque composer used his mastery of tone color, harmony and emotion in his two Passions to create some of the most powerful music ever written.
But despite that, it’s a rare thing for the “St. John” passion to be performed in the Puget Sound area. So the three performances this weekend by the Northwest Sinfonietta – following on the heels of Pacific MusicWorks’ period performance earlier this month and the Seattle Symphony’s production of the 1727 St. Matthew Passion in February – marks the last of a series of musical gifts for local audiences. Together with five stellar soloists, the Sinfonietta presents the “St. John” this weekend in Seattle, Tacoma and Puyallup, aiming to tell the story through the sheer power of the music.
“It’s a hugely important part of baroque music in general: text painting and creating musical affect,” explains tenor Christopher Cock, who’ll sing the narrating part of the Evangelist. The director of both the Bach Institute and the Valparaiso University Chorale, one of the few American choirs to have spent two residencies at Bach’s home church of St. Thomas, Leipzig, Cock’s one of the five star soloists lined up for the Sinfonietta’s “St. John.” Baritone Clayton Brainerd sings the calm, collected role of Jesus, while bass Charles Robert Stephens sings the more anguished Pilate; both are in demand regionally. Baroque and contemporary star Cyndia Sieden sings the soprano arias, and Sarah Mattox the alto, adding in commentary and color to the male-heavy storyline.
For the Evangelist, Cock explains, Bach writes highly chromatic lines to convey the torment of the last few days of Jesus’ life; while for the Christ part itself the most interesting thing, says Clayton Brainerd, is the inbuilt conflict between Jesus’ divine knowledge of his heavenly destiny and his very human fear of what is to come.
“That is absolutely brilliantly done in the piece,” says Brainerd. “The level of genius that Bach had is staggering: the detail, the complexity of harmony, and how it’s always beautiful.”
But it’s not just with vocal lines that Bach paints his picture. Unusual instruments like oboe da caccia, viola d’amore, lute and viola da gamba, old-fashioned even in Bach’s time, were added by him to give specific timbres to various arias (the Sinfonietta, playing at modern pitch, will substitute modern instruments for these lines). Other instruments also tell the story, like the flute dovetailing loyally in and out of the soprano line as she sings “Ich folge dir gleichfalls” – the humble soul following Christ. In the opening chorus, the orchestra creates a wall of sound, hammering repeated bass notes before the choir enters with the explosive “Herr” (“Lord”), followed by dissonant oboes and roiling strings to tell of the coming anguish.
One musical storytelling aspect director Christophe Chagnard finds most powerful is the dichotomy between when the chorus sings angelic harmonies and when it clamors to have Jesus put to death.
“When they are the angry mob they sing choruses, they repeat words over and over,” Chagnard explains. “When they are ‘divine wisdom,’ they sing the chorales. It’s very contrasting.”
One thing Chagnard won’t be doing, though, is a fully-staged interpretation such as the radical and critically-acclaimed performance just produced by the Berlin Philharmonic and Radio Choir under director Peter Sellars, which told the Passion story through near-operatic stage action.
“There’s nothing better, if you have six months to dedicate, a huge budget, the best orchestra in the world and a choir who can memorize the parts,” Chagnard says wryly. “I’d do it in a heartbeat.”
But while the director says he’s added a few dramatic elements to the Sinfonietta performance, he’ll rely on the sheer power of the music to tell the story.
“It’s going to be very emotional,” he says. “It doesn’t need a lot of staging.”
While the text is in German, there will be English supertitles above the stage in Seattle and Tacoma, and a printed text in Puyallup. But, as Cock points out, even if you don’t know German or follow the translation “you can still have a sense of the characters and what’s happening, because of the impact and depth of the writing.”
7:30 p.m. March 14; First Presbyterian Church, 1013 8th Ave., Seattle. 800-838-3006
7:30 p.m. March 15; Rialto Theater, 310 S. 9th St., Tacoma. 800-291-7593
2 p.m. March 16; Pioneer Pavilion, 330 S. Meridian Ave., Puyallup. 800-838-3006
Tickets $27-$55, student rush $10 one hour before performance. nwsinfonietta.org
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 firstname.lastname@example.org