J.S. Bach's Passion According to St. John

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In the St. John Passion we are presented with a horror story in which an innocent is tortured and slain according to the bloodthirsty principles we speciously call 'justice.' In a time when even Texans are starting to question the righteousness of wholesale lethal injections, this performance offered its audience a most uncomfortable allegory.

New Texas Music Works

Reviewed by Lindsey Eck

Thursday, June 21 2001, 2:03 PM


The St. John is often considered the lesser of Bach's two Passions. Certainly the St. Matthew, staged by the same group in the same venue one year before, is brilliant in its radical use of twin orchestras and choirs, whereas the St. John is more typical of Baroque form and orchestration. Still, the St. John offers its own profound, if subtler, pleasures.

The New Texas Music Works, under the direction of its founder and Artistic Director Craig Hella, performs an invaluable function in fostering the performance of classic art music for a broad, popular audience, including support for contemporary works. Under Mr. Hella's energetic direction, the Conspirare Choir and Orchestra, along with accomplished soloists, delivered a cathartic performance of the St. John Passion that brought the capacity crowd to its feet at the end.

The text was taken almost verbatim by Bach from the German Gospel of John. In contrast to the Catholic Mass (another favorite choral text for composers)-- which emphasizes the divinity of an everlasting Christ -- the Lutheran Passion story focuses almost entirely on Jesus as a human being, indeed the only innocent in a play full of villains. The gospel as excerpted by Bach begins with Jesus' arrest and ends with His burial (not, significantly, with His resurrection). Some have whiffed anti-Semitism in the text's references to the mob howling for Jesus' blood as "Jews"; if the Greek author of John tended to use the ethnic designation unlike Matthew, himself a Jew, the Passion as conceived by Bach offers a different and unsettling interpretation of the role of the mob.

Far from setting the crowd apart as Jews and hence enabling the viewer to scapegoat them as the Other, Bach places a chorus acting as mob in front of the audience as its mirror and invites those who dare to see in the howling, vengeful rabble their own evil, sadism, and willingness to shed innocent blood for mere entertainment. Bach's Passion performances in Leipzig, no grand metropolis, would have featured the audience's friends and neighbors in the role of chorus (mob) and the interpolations of later regret (in the first person) added to the gospel text reinforce the idea that it was not the "Jews" who killed Christ, but we who trample on innocence every day. In Austin, the effect is similar. In the capital of a state famously devoted to assembly-line executions, seeing one's fellow citizens portrayed as howling for the immolation of an innocent could only evoke discomfort at the parallels to events of two millennia ago.

A master of drama, Bach set the text of John to music that heightens the pathos of the man of peace sacrificed in a bloody spectacle to assuage the bloodlust of the crowd, which repents at leisure. The lines that translate 'If you let this man go, you are no friends to Caesar...' are set to a deeply righteous and patriotic melody that adds deep irony to the hypocrisy of the Jews appealing to the Roman patriotism of their imperial oppressors. Shortly after, singing 'Slay with him! Crucify him!' the mob is made to yap like small beasts. Then, when the text departs from the gospel story to illustrate an attitude of repentance -- 'When I am in need, console me with the picture of you so patiently enduring death' -- the music becomes calm, lyrical, and serious.

Probably the toughest role is that of the Evangelist, who not only must sing narration in the forms of long paragraphs of prose set to melodies with irregular speechlike rhythms, but must also negotiate many difficult intervals. Karl Dent performed these tasks with aplomb. Tim Krol, as Jesus, did a commendable job as the traditional sweet tenor evoking innocence and quiet strength. Charles Austin, as Pilate, gave his customary flamboyant performance with excellent tone and control, and brought an interpretation of Pilate as rather more evil than the text itself implies, a Machiavellian who is all too willing to acquiesce in a kangaroo trial if it solves an immediate problem for his administration. Perhaps Austin's performance was somewhat overstated when contrasted with that of Stanley Warren. This accomplished tenor demonstrated a beautiful tone in the aria "O meine Seel," but lacked the commanding volume and personality of Austin and seemed overpowered by the strings. (Since Bach seldom indicated dynamics, the conductor could remedy this particular detail by instructing the strings to lower the volume for that aria.) Warren showed more virtuosity in the aria "Erwage, sein blutgefarbter Rukken," with some clarion notes attained with little effort. Two female roles complete the roster of soloists. In arias that place stringent demands on a soprano's instrument, Leigh Shipman produced controlled high notes with masterful ability to control vibrato. And Stephanie Prewitt, especially in the "Es is vollbrecht" aria, demonstrated the rich midrange of the mezzo.

The Conspirare Choir mirrored the (pardon the expression) passion of its conductor with a performance that was not only faithful to the notes Bach penned, but also to the spirit of the drama. The Conspirare Orchestra performed competently, especially toward the beginng when the orchestra is required to create a dense, busy texture. However, in musicality they are somewhat outshone by their rivals across downtown at St. David's, notably occasional less-than-perfect pitch and intonation in the low strings.

The New Texas Music Works is to be commended, not only for bringing masterworks (and less famous gems) to the Austin public, but in offering interpretations that go beyond a recitation of the written score to evoke the drama and emotions of our own time. Those familiar with Bach's Toccata in D Minor are aware of the Master's penchant for the macabre; in the St. John Passion we are presented with a horror story in which an innocent is tortured and slain according to the bloodthirsty principles we speciously call 'justice.' In a time when even Texans are starting to question the righteousness of wholesale lethal injections, this performance offered its audience a most uncomfortable allegory.

Copyright © 2001 by Lindsey Eck. All rights reserved.
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