It’s not very often you get to perform the bible--both literally and figuratively. Obviously, the story of the passion is central to the Lenten season and is of the utmost importance in the Christian calendar. As a work, the Bach St. John Passion also stands as a monument to musical achievement, and stands today as one of the most revered works
written in the history of civilization. Confronted with those two facts, the stakes for a quality performance is quite high.
Step one: Make sure you have a chorus that can equal the demands of the piece. How lucky are we to have been able to partner with the Nordic Choir from Luther College. This music is in their DNA, and to have the opportunity to work with such a fine ensemble, made of burgeoning young professionals who drank in every note with as much reverence as I, was nothing short of a privilege. They play a critical role in the work, and it would not have been possible without the expert help of their
Artistic Director Allen Hightower--you could not ask for a warmer, more supportive partner in this man. This weekend, I was the luckiest person in the world.
Step two: Hire the best soloists possible, starting with the Evangelist. Bach's music is EXTREMELY hard to sing. Despite his genius, he sometimes forgets that singers need to breathe. Professionals spend their entire careers figuring out how to convey the meaning of the text, and how to finish a phrase while parceling out their air to make it happen. All were superb, but a special word of gratitude needs to go out to our Evangelist Stephen Ng. The stamina one needs to sing the entire role together with the 2 arias is a very rare talent and skill. Put that together with the fact that we had a rehearsal Thursday night, 2 on Friday, and a dress rehearsal Saturday morning before our first concert--the hours logged on the voice is dangerously high (did I tell you that part of my job as conductor is risk assessment?).
Step three: Prepare the parts (choral scores, continuo, and orchestra music) so that no detail is left unmarked. Not only are the bowings to be settled, but dynamics, phrasings, articulations, and a myriad of other details must be in the parts before the first rehearsal. This is such a long work, that you cannot waste time in rehearsal explaining your musical concepts. They must already be in the music to be read down - every breath and textual nuance in terms of how the voice waxes and wanes with the pronunciation of each word were duplicated and mimicked in the orchestra’s articulations. To give you some perspective,
I started working on the parts over the summer in August, and completed the task sometime in mid February.
Step four: Make sure you have a crackerjack continuo team. We are blessed to have Carey Bostian and Miko Kominami in our orchestral family. As the Evangelist does the heavy lifting vocally, the continuo does the heavy lifting orchestrationally. Their challenge is to follow the text (in German), anticipating where the singer is going, and meeting him at crucial moments to provide the harmonic underpinning of the recitatives. It's quite nerve racking as the style is very speech-like and not metronomical. As a result there is a degree of unpredictability that they have to contend with.
Put it all together, and you have a memorable weekend. This was one of my bucket list pieces (the others being the b minor mass, and the St. Matthew Passion), and if I've learned anything, it's that good things come to those who wait. There is nothing better than great music well played, and picking the moment when all is available and ready is a necessity that requires patience. Want to hear it again? We'll see you on Palm Sunday at the Decorah Lutheran Church.
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