Foto: George Stoica

Easter Concert: St. John’s Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach

It’s been a long time since I’ve attended a classical music concert, and guitars and drums can get a bit boring after a while, so why not indulge in some of that delicious pre-Easter sorrow and anguish, with a musical rendition of the sufferings of Jesus? Spoiler alert, he comes back to life at the end.

Text: George Stoica

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk Bach. The work played this past Thursday, March 17th, entitled St. John’s Passion is one of his four takes on the tale of the crucifixion, each version following a different gospel. Of these, only three survive, and of those three St. John’s is the oldest. It incorporates some instruments which you will not find in the standard orchestra, which is always a bonus, and follows a very narrative form, with healthy chunks taken straight from the gospel itself.
​The concert held inside the Tromsø Domkirke was packed. No room left on any bench, and I think people would have been happy to just stand in the back if that would have been allowed. The murmur and hum of voices was pretty loud, making that moment when it all goes silent even more powerful. How is it that the crowd just suddenly knows to stop even before any of the performers have walked out from the sides? It’s like a static current that goes through the whole crowd, and in an instant no conversation is too important to interrupt: “It begins!”

Photo: George Stoica
Photo: George Stoica

I will say one thing about the Tromsø Domkirke: it has put me off going to classical concerts in concrete buildings forever. There’s just no way to equal the feel and warmth of wooden churches when it comes to acoustics. It takes the pressure off the bass section since their sounds are easier to hear, and it takes away that glassy brittleness that accompanies the sound bounced back by a pretentious marble wall, be it painted with cherubs all the way up to High Heaven.
One thing that always seems to take you by surprise while listening to St. John’s Passion is the sweeping and glorious entrance of the choir voices after the intro. The cries of “Herr! Herr!” always leave me with goosebumps, and though the music itself doesn’t shine as bright the whole way through, there are many moments to keep your ears busy. The major key passages, some of which intertwine with minor key dips, resolve wonderfully in those little half-tone endings that we associate with baroque music, often without knowing. Another baroque feature present was the basso continuo provided by the clavier, though it was often drowned out by the rest of the musicians. The very demanding part of the Evangelist, a tenor voice, was executed admirably by Alexander Kaimbacher, who was seated up in the pulpit (a very nice theatrical choice), and who provided a small measure of comedy in the way he just popped up seemingly out of nowhere whenever his passages began.

Besides the complexity of his lines, the orchestra had to follow him, and the other soloists, with almost no direction from the conductor, resulting in a very organic coloring of the narrative lines and making it truly feel like someone is telling a story (although I firmly believe the poor tenor must have gotten really tired of saying “Jesus antwortete” so many times). I wish this technique would be used more today, especially considering our modern predilection for solid rhythmicity in narrative works such as musicals. Sure, it may get the audience pumped, but it doesn’t draw their attention as much as an ever-shifting melody that seems to grow out of the most natural cadences of the human voice.

Photo: George Stoica
Photo: George Stoica

One of my favorite parts of the entire piece is the passage right after the choosing of Barabas. The section is dominated by two violins playing something I can only describe as “music that would make Vivaldi call up his copyright lawyers, ‘cause something smells fishy here.” All humor aside, the sorrowful swells that grow intense and then fall back to a gentle sigh are absolutely delightful, and when more instruments come in and the entire theme grows it just feels like Bach really nailed the feel of this passage. I say this because other times he makes the choice of using major key or just “lighter sounding” music for some of the saddest parts of the story, and that makes no sense to me. This may be just my Eastern Orthodox experience talking, but the music we used to sing and play during Easter was extremely dark and sorrowful, it almost weighed you down physically when you had to sing it.
Some instances of this unusual choice actually work very well, and here I am referring to the passages where the crowd speaks. The choir cascades their responses to create the feeling of an immense number of people speaking, and again the use of major key passages only serves to emphasize their folly and the lighthearted way they treat the spectacle.
Don’t worry, this hasn’t turned into a review of Bach’s musical abilities, but rather a testament to the success of the musicians in bringing his work to life. I’d also like to note the subtle use of colored light throughout the concert, which was a welcomed theatrical choice, especially when considering the fact that the altar, with its large painting of the resurrection, provided a more than appropriate backdrop for the whole evening. In the end, all the ingredients came together wonderfully, and the concert ended just as all good concerts should: with a standing ovation. Bravissimo!

Photo: George Stoica
Photo: George Stoica
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