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Bach's 'St. John Passion'
Provides Step Back in Time

A musical program to be performed in Huntsville Tuesday evening will provide area residents an eerie insight into the very foundations of music and theatre.

The Huntsville Community Choral Society, Sam Houston State University Symphonic Chorus, and the Texas Baroque Ensemble will perform Johann Sebastian Bach's "Passion According to St. John."

General admission for the event set for 7:30 p.m. at the First Baptist Church will be $8, or $3 for Friends of Music and SHSU students.

Susan Ferré, music director and co-founder of the Texas Baroque Ensemble, will conduct the performance.

"The Bach 'St. John Passion' is one of a handful of monuments of choral music," said Brian Miller, the chorus preparer, "comparable to Beethoven's 'Missa Solemnis,' Brahms' 'German Requiem,' Britten's 'War Requiem,' and Bach's 'Mass in B minor' and 'St. Matthew Passion'.

"None of these works are performed often, so one should attend a performance when the opportunity presents itself."

What is especially intriguing concerning this performance, however, is the similarities in setting and sound to the piece's first performance in April, 1724.

There is some debate as to what language Bach Passions should be performed in--the original or the language of the audience.

"Translations never quite fit the music or portray the drama as well as the original language," said Miller. "It simply 'sings' better in German."

Tuesday evening's performance will be in German, but the German text and a corresponding English translation will be in the program so the audience can easily follow along.

The Texas Baroque Ensemble uses period instruments, resulting in sounds said to be "quieter, lighter, and richer in overtones, producing transparent, ethereal effects..."

The keyboards are tuned differently, the stringed instruments fitted with thicker gut strings, the oboes and bassoons have few or no keys necessitating complex fingering systems and resulting in a distinctive tonal quality.

"The Baroque instruments produce a wide variety of timbres which are highly coloristic and excitingly different," said Miller.

The key performers and their roles will include Wayne Barrett (Evangelist), Robert Best (Jesus) and Jackson Felder (Pilate). Also, Patti Spain (Soprano), Barbara Corbin (Alto), Roger Bryant (Tenor), David Grogan (Bass), Alan Strong (Continuo Organ) and Charles Lang (Continuo Cello).

Bach lived in the university town of Leipzig, a fact not lost in an explanation of Bach's contributions to the Baroque musical form by Harry Mallard, professor of music history at SHSU.

Mallard writes that the Baroque tradition "took as its noblest project the intensification of drama with music, hoping thereby to recapture the fabled power of Greek tragedy. It is one of the ironies of history that its most grandiose expression--the opera--fell immediately into an oblivion from which it has never recovered."

George Frideric Handel and Bach are both known as leaders in the Baroque musical movement. "But it was perhaps Bach, even more than Handel, who was able to achieve the profoundest expression of the Baroque ideal," wrote Mallard. "He had no star singers, merely a small group of boys and men he found in a university town (Leipzig) of some 30,000 souls."

While Tuesday evening concert-goers in Huntsville will experience a retreat in time of almost three centuries, Mallard believes Bach was successful in turning back the clock even further.

"Bach was able to direct his music at what he understood to be its highest purpose," wrote Mallard. "Not to entertain, but rather to teach, to edify.

"And whether deliberately or not, he returned (music) drama to its original function as conceived by the Greeks by placing it in the service of religion."


Media Contact: Frank Krystyniak
April 16, 1998
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