The ensemble will play Baroque instruments and accompany a Grammy-winning tenor.
Trevor Stephenson, founder and artistic director of the Madison Bach Musicians, describes Bach’s St. John Passion as “otherworldly,” a sacred masterwork that transcends space and time.
The Passion, which tells the story of the betrayal and crucifixion of Jesus Christ according to the Gospel of John, premiered at a Lutheran Good Friday service at St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig in 1724. It is one of two surviving Passions from the great composer.
Madison Bach Musicians will present the premiere period performance of the St. John Passion in the intimate setting of the First Unitarian Society Atrium Auditorium April 14-15. The storyteller, called the Evangelist, sings John’s gospel story in recitative style. Meanwhile, the soloists and choir sing various arias and chorales that tell us how the story affects them. “It’s like a movie,” says Stephenson. “There are multiple perspectives, and they change quickly.”
Even without costumes or staging, tension is palpable throughout the work. It grows feverish during Jesus’ trial as he engages in legal sparring with Jewish and Roman authorities, and an angry crowd led by high priests demands his crucifixion. But Bach cools the soundscape with arias and hymn tunes strategically placed among the jagged counterpoint.
Over the years, some have criticized the Passion for being anti-Semitic in its portrayal of Jews as the reason for Christ’s death. Others argue that it blames the sins of all mankind for the crucifixion. Stephenson will address this issue, as well as Bach’s process for composing the work, in pre-concert talks. Between parts one and two, Reverend Michael Schuler of the First Unitarian Society will talk about the work’s theological reflections.
The Passion will be sung in German with English supertitles, and 10 professional singers from around the country will sing arias and chorales, as well as the roles of protagonists Jesus, Pontius Pilate and Peter. Grammy award-winning tenor Dann Coakwell will sing the part of the Evangelist.
An orchestra of 17 outstanding musicians will play Baroque instruments, while Stephenson plays organ continuo. Baroque performance specialist Marc Vallon will wield the baton.
“The St. John Passion is the closest work to an opera that Bach wrote,” says Stephenson. “The pacing is impeccable. Bach knows when to pull back and when to move forward, when to be simple and when to be complex.”