In the rehearsal room at PLU’s music center, Richard Nance and the college’s two choirs are hard at work on a chorale. It sounds vaguely like Bach, except with neo-Romantic harmonies and unexpected modulations. Then you realize that it’s the tune of Bach’s most common Passion chorale (“O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” in English), but flipped upside down, in six parts and with dotted notes for extra ambiguity.
That’s Sven-David Sandström’s “St. Matthew Passion,” a massive, dense work for choir, soloists and orchestra based on the same text as Bach’s but using the iconic Baroque master as a jumping-off point, harmonically, structurally and dramatically.
“This is Bach brought into modern musical language,” explains Nance during the break. “That’s what’s so significant about it.”
It’s also what’s so difficult about it. In that one chorale alone, Sandström flickers between B-flat minor and D minor — in later, more dramatic parts of the story, chords cluster in dissonances only to resolve fiercely to completely unrelated major triads. Vocal lines take jagged leaps, stress is expressed through syncopation and lightning speeds, and the tessitura is astonishing: low D for the basses, high C for tenors, high C# for sopranos.
At one point in rehearsal, Nance asks the pianist to play the bar before the choir entry.
“And hey — it’s actually the same chord you’ll be singing!” he points out.
“Woo-hoo!” call out some sopranos, laughing.
Over in the hall, the orchestra’s also finding it tough: their part is atmospheric and doesn’t make much sense in isolation. One week before the performance, conductor Stefan Parkman (who led the work’s world premiere) will arrive to pull the pieces together.
With six choir parts, an Evangelist quartet, four soloists and orchestra, this Passion is dense and complex, but still highly approachable tonally. And, points out Nance, it differs from the Bach in avoiding text repetition, so the story moves quickly. (The German text will have English surtitles in performance.) Despite the references to Bach, Sandström says he didn’t intend to rework the original.
“It’s a new reading of the same text with 350 years’ difference,” he says.
“It latches onto you from the very beginning,” Nance says. “You’re moved, absorbed in the story.”