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Bach St. John Passion poses obstacles for choirs, orchestra, and director

Bach St. John Passion will be performed this Sunday in Rockefeller Chapel.

This Sunday, the University’s performance of Bach St. John Passion will transport Rockefeller Chapel from modern day Hyde Park to 18th century Leipzig. The Rockefeller Chapel Choir and Orchestra, along with Motet Choir and soloists Christine Buras, Andrew Schultze, Lon Ellenberger, Matthew Dean, and Mark Winston will perform the last arrangement of St. John Passion Bach wrote before his death in 1750. Due to its heavy subject matter and length–the Passion is about two hours long, and describes the crucifixion of Jesus–the piece is a formidable undertaking.

“We began [practicing]… last quarter, and we have been picking away ever since,” said first year member of the Motet Choir Hannah Mark. “We're doing the full piece, and it's such a powerful story–it was a lot of work to get through it all."

The choir started working on the piece in January, according to soloist Mark Winston, who sings the part of Pilatus. Rehearsing and performing the Passion is a new experience for Winston, who is in his third year singing with the Rockefeller Chapel Choir. “Working on it has involved a hefty amount of practice on my own with my voice teacher, as well as rehearsal with James Kallembach,” he said. Perfecting the piece presented challenges beyond just learning the music, according to Winston. “It has required lots of work on the text both in terms of the pronunciation of the German words, and characterization and emphasis.  I spent some with a German to English dictionary, translating the text,” he said.

Certain challenges are inevitable, however, in working with a piece that deals with such serious subject matter. Bach focused intensely on the suffering of Jesus Christ in writing the piece. When asked about the encapsulating atmosphere of the concert, choir director James Kallembach replied: “The mood of this concert might be best explained by stating what I think the St. John Passion is: a profound reflection upon the meaning of human suffering.” St. John Passion was first performed in 1724, but its libretto was later changed in 1749, a year before Bach’s death, in order to create a more serious tone. Although many modern day performances of such pieces alter the original sound of the piece, Sunday’s performance will sound incredibly like the 1749 piece.

Before the performance, professor of music and renowned Bach scholar Michael Marissen will deliver a lecture on some of the controversial aspects of St. John Passion. Professor Marissen, who wrote Lutheranism, Anti-Judaism, and Bach's St. John Passion, will examine the conflicts presented by a musical piece inspired by a text rife with anti-Judaic sentiment.  

Perhaps because of the piece’s controversy and heavy subject matter, St. John Passion is rarely performed. Mr. Kallembach summarizes the essence of this concert quite well: “From the majestic opening chorus to the mournful tones of the death and burial scenes, the work broods on over human mortality in a manner that challenges, consoles, and ennobles, all at the same time.”