By Jacob Stockinger
The Madison Bach Musicians (below), which specializes in authentic period performances of early music, will perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. John Passion” this coming Friday and Saturday nights, both at 7:30 p.m., in the Atrium Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive.
On both nights at 6:45 p.m., MBM founder and music director Trevor Stephenson (below) will give a free pre-concert lecture on the “Structure and Performance History of the St. John Passion.” In his remarks, Stephenson said he will discuss the question of anti-Semitism in the famous work.
(NOTE: Stephenson and some of the players will also be on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “The Midday” with Norman Gilliland TODAY at noon.)
At the end of Part I, the Rev. Michael Schuler of the Unitarian Society will give a talk focusing on “Theological Reflections on Bach and the St. John Passion.”
This is only the second time the work has been performed in historical style in the state of Wisconsin. For more information and explanation, see the story in the Wisconsin State Journal:
Tickets are $28-$33 and are available online, at Orange Tree Imports and at the door. Ticket information is at www.madisonbachmusicians.org
Trevor Stephenson writes the following about the work and the performance:
Bach was 38 years old when he composed the monumental St. John Passion during his initial year of employment in Leipzig, 1723-24. The work was first performed at the Nikolai Church during the Good Friday service on April 7, 1724.
As was the custom, no concerted music had been played in church during the previous six weeks of Lent, and the airing of the St. John Passion ― music of unprecedented complexity, lasting for over two hours — must have had an overwhelming effect on the fresh ears and devoted souls of the parishioners.
From its outset—with the whirling gear-like figures in the strings beneath the moiling of the oboes—the St. John Passion has an otherworldly aura of a story that has been foretold. Bach’s genius is in how he balances this inevitability with a sense of forward dramatic thrust: the passion story must happen, has already happened, but it also must be played out in real-time by living people, step by painful step. Time is at once both linear and circular. (Below is the manuscript for the “St. John Passion.”)
I believe that the objective of Bach (below) in setting the St. John Passion was to tell as vividly as possible the story of Jesus’ cruel earthly demise while at the same time tempering this vividness with frequent textual reminders, as well as an overarching tone, that convey the firm belief that Jesus’ Passion had not only been prophesied long before his birth but that Jesus’ suffering and death on earth was the only solution for the forgiveness of humanity’s sins.
The Evangelist John is our guide for the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion and burial. John sings his narration in the dry and angular recitative style, addressing the audience directly. He summarizes some scenes and introduces others, which are then played out in present-tense tableau format by various characters: Jesus, Peter, Pilate, Court officers, the angry mob.
Bach uses two techniques to pause and comment upon the narrative: first, with arias for solo voices and instrumental obbligato, that employ freely-composed poetry to reflect upon the story in a personal way — like the thoughts of someone observing the action; and second, by chorales which use tunes and texts that would have been familiar to Bach’s parishioners to elicit a broader communal response to the passion story. Many of the chorales are like a spiritual balm, providing moments of much needed rest throughout the work.
For the upcoming April 14 and 15 concerts of the St. John Passion ― on Good Friday and Holy Saturday ― the Madison Bach Musicians has endeavored as much as possible to recreate the early 18th-century sound world of that first Leipzig performance in 1724. MBM will use a 17-member baroque orchestra, conducted by UW-Madison bassoonist and performance-practice specialist Marc Vallon (below, in a photo by James Gill).
The orchestra will play entirely on 18th-century style instruments:
These instruments will join with 10 outstanding vocalists—specialists in singing both solo and choral baroque repertoire.
Internationally recognized, and Grammy Award winning tenor, Dann Coakwell (below, in a photo by Mary Gordon) will sing the part of John the Evangelist.
The Passion will be sung in its original German; but an English translation of the text will be projected in supertitles scene-by-scene throughout the performance.
MBM is thrilled to be presenting this masterwork in the Atrium Auditorium (below, in a photo by Zane Williams) at First Unitarian Society, a space beautifully suited to early music. The sightlines are superb, and the acoustics offer a great balance of clarity, crispness, and spaciousness.
Seating is limited, so advance ticket purchase is suggested.
By Jacob Stockinger
The Ear knows a lot of musicians.
And he considers them among the most privileged of people and workers.
That’s because he has never met a musician who regretted being a musician, even if they don’t get the job they want or earn as much as they need.
Musicians are happy, The Ear thinks, because they speak a higher language and never get tired of it.
We who listen are envious of those who play.
Krosnick is the longtime cellist of the legendary Juilliard String Quartet (below). He never thought he would retire, but now, after 42 years, he says he will indeed retire at the end of the 2015-16 season, although he will continue to teach at the Juilliard School.
Getting old, he explains, means that he can do one full-time career but no longer two. That should bring new respect to teacher-performers who are too often portrayed more as failed performers who have to teach by default.
Read or listen to the interview for yourself and see what I mean.
And here, in a YouTube video at the bottom, is a slow movement from one of the late “Prussian” Quartets that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed for the King of Prussia, who played the cello quite well. So Mozart gave the work a prominent role to the cello.
By Jacob Stockinger
You might recall that Ludwig van Beethoven (below) composed only one opera.
And you may recall that the Madison Opera has slated “Fidelio” for a production this coming season in Overture Hall on Friday night, Nov. 21, and Sunday afternoon, Nov. 23.
The production comes during a time of great political unrest and perhaps upheaval at home, with crucial national and state elections, and especially overseas and in foreign affairs with Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Africa’s Ebola strife and many other hot spots showing no sign of letting up.
So will the local production of “Fidelio” be more or less a traditional one? Or will the Madison Opera’s general director Kathryn Smith and its artistic director, John DeMain, who is also the music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, have other ideas about how to tweak the opera and recast it for modern or contemporary relevance?
It will be interesting to see, although The Ear understands that the production will be traditional.
Here is a link to the Madison Opera’s website:
Currently, the acclaimed Santa Fe Opera is staging a controversial new version of “Fidelio”(below), created by director Stephen Wadsworth, that takes place in the Nazi death camp Bergen-Belsen. Sounds very Peter Sellars-like. (You can hear the moving music from the Prisoners’ Chorus at the bottom in a YouTube video.)
Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, of The New York Times, did not like it and, in fact, said it offended her because it belittled the Holocaust. She also complained that the roles in the actual text did not match the roles that the new staging created. She saw the production as too inconsistent.
Her larger complaint seems to reflect the notion that after the Holocaust, writing poetry and creating art is impossible, that beauty has been ruined.
It is an ambitious, lofty and tempting thought, but one that is clearly not true. In fact, it is downright wrong. Great suffering and art are old pals. Sometimes art takes you away from suffering; sometimes it takes you deeper into it. It depends on the work and on the performers. But we need both.
Anyway, here is the review from the Times as well as another one with a different take. Read them for yourself. Then decide and make up your own mind. It sure sounds like a concept worth pursuing, even if flawed, to The Ear.
Critic Heidi Waleson, of The Wall Street Journal, on the other hand, praised the production:
Be sure to tell The Ear, and other readers, including members of the Madison Opera, if you have ever seen an updated version of “Fidelio” and what you thought of it.
Where do you think “Fidelio could be recast to best advantage The Holocaust? The Spanish Inquisition? The Soviet Gulag and Great Terror? The Killing Fields of Cambodia? The Rwandan genocide? Abu Graib prison in Iraq? A CIA black site torture prison in Egypt? The Chinese Cultural Revolution?
Or, given the fact that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, how about a Supermax prison in Wisconsin?
You get the idea.
Go wild with your imagination, and then write in.
The Ear wants to hear.
By Jacob Stockinger
Since then the MBM has turned in many memorable performances of cantatas and concertos by Bach and other early music on period instruments, including works by Antonio Vivaldi, Arcangelo Corelli and George Frideric Handel.
But this Easter weekend will bring a special treat.
The Madison Bach Musicians, will partner with the Madison Choral Project, under Albert Pinsonneault, to perform Bach’s magnificent and monumental Mass in Minor.
Performances are at on this Friday night at 8 pm. in the First Congregational United Church of Christ. And on Saturday night at 8 p.m. in the Atrium Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison at 900 University Bay Drive, near UW Hospital.
Advance tickets are $20 for adults; $15 for students and seniors over 65; at the door, $25 and $20, respectively. For more information about how to buy advance tickets, visit:
For more information about the music and the performers, visit:
Stephenson (seen below, in a pre-concert lecture in a photo by Kent Sweitzer), who is a knowledgeable, articulate and entertaining speaker about Baroque music, agreed to an email Q&A about the Mass in B Minor.
Musicians often talk about their “desert island piece”— the work they would most want to have at hand if they were forced to live on a desert island. For me, the B minor Mass has always been my desert island piece. (But if I could sneak in the Well-Tempered Clavier too, that would be great.)
The Passions are incomparable investigations into the relationship between the human embodiment of divine spirit and the dark machinations of this world. The Passions are also Bach’s great statements on the importance of self-sacrifice for the greater good of love. (Jesus gave up his life for love of us, and we should in turn give of ourselves to that which we love.)
The Cantatas are the laboratory where Bach worked out–on a nearly weekly basis–the fusion of musical and textual material toward a spiritual end.
The Mass in B minor focuses more on the relationship between—and really the joining of–the metaphysical and the everyday. Just as an example, as Bach expert John Eliot Gardiner (below) points out in his wonderful new book, “Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven,” look how the opening of the Credo fuses the gravitas, dignity, and mysticism of plainchant (in the voices) with the elegant, bubbling stride of the baroque bass line. And together these elements create a third thing, beyond themselves, a new joy. (At bottom is a YouTube video of the uplifting and joyous “Gloria” movement, performed by Karl Richter leading the Munich Bach Orchestra.)
Why did a devout Lutheran like Bach turn to a Roman Catholic musical form? Is it appropriate to the Easter season, like the Passions and certain cantatas? What kind of liberties does Bach take with it? How does he reinvent it, if he does?
In Bach’s family, the work was often referred to as “The great catholic mass”–precisely because it was not usual Lutheran practice to set the entire Latin mass. The first appearance of the Mass in B minor comes in 1733 when Bach and his family copied out a beautiful set of presentation parts for the Dresden court–which had not only one of the greatest orchestras and vocal ensembles in Europe, but was also a Catholic court.
I’ve always felt that Bach’s Mass in B minor is something of a reconciliation with the Catholic church after the spiritual and political upheaval of the 17th century and the devastation of the 30-years War.
The Mass in B minor, though it is certainly Christian, also points toward a more inclusive picture of humanity’s universal — the original meaning of catholic — spiritual quest. It is hard to quantify, but I feel there is something in this music that speaks to—and really helps and inspires–us all.
Why will Marc Vallon conduct it rather than you?
Marc and I have been working together for several years now. He has played several bassoon concertos with MBM; also with MBM he has conducted symphonies and concertos by Wolfgang Amadeus, Franz Joseph Haydn and Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach.
Marc, who now teaches and performs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, was principal baroque bassoon—for 20 years—with the internationally acclaimed Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra under Ton Koopman. And during that time Marc performed and recorded many of Bach’s Cantatas, Passions and the B minor Mass.
Marc’s tremendous performance background with the Mass, and his infectious enthusiasm for this timeless masterpiece make him perfectly suited to lead the rehearsals and the concerts. I really can’t wait to hear what happens on Friday and Saturday when these amazing musicians and Marc Vallon (below, in a photo by James Gill) and a great audience gather for the Mass in B minor.
What are the special aspects (one-on-one versus larger chorus, for example, or the Madison Choral Project or the period instruments and practices) that you would like to point out about this performance?
The Madison Choral Project is providing a 17-voice choir for the Mass in B minor concerts. In this work, since Bach usually uses a five-part choral texture (soprano I, soprano II, alto, tenor, bass), this comes to about three voices per part, depending on how things are distributed in a particular moment.
In two movements of the Mass (first Credo and Confiteor), we’ll have the soloists sing one-voice-per-part.
The orchestra will consist of 25 players, all on period instruments: 12 strings, 2 baroque oboes, 2 baroque flutes, 2 baroque bassoons, natural horn, 3 baroque trumpets, timpani, and continuo organ, which I what I will play. The balance between choir, soloists and orchestra should work out beautifully. (Below is the Madison Bach Musicians performing the “St. Matthew Passion” in a photo by Karen Holland.)
What should the public listen for in the mass both musically and performance-wise?
I would say notice how Bach contrasts grandeur with intimacy, metaphysical inquiry and prayer with rollicking celebration, and yet makes an exquisitely coherent whole. I think the Mass in B minor is a miracle of form.
Also, these concerts will feature an entirely period-instrument orchestra of outstanding baroque performance specialists hailing from throughout the United States — Madison, Milwaukee, Oshkosh, San Francisco, Chicago, New York City, Las Vegas, Minneapolis, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
The wonderful thing about playing this incomparable baroque masterwork on instruments that Bach was familiar with, is that the sound becomes fresh and energized in a way that is readily apparent. It really is a way of going Back to the Present!
The 18th-century instruments typically speak faster than their modern descendants — that is, the pitch actually forms more quickly, often by just a fraction of a second. But in music-making—especially very intricate baroque music-making—that fraction of a second can be the critical difference.
Bach’s absolutely amazing counterpoint in the Mass in B minor, which he often weaves effortlessly in 4 and even 5 independent parts is much more transparent when played on period instruments. You can peer more deeply into the infinite world of Bach’s fugues.
Period instruments are also set up to articulate quite deftly, that is, baroque instruments help the players define the shorter musical groupings of connected and non-connected notes. This in turn assists the audience in assimilating the elegant rhetorical shapes of Bach’s lines.
I will also preface both the concerts starting at 6:45 p.m. with a 30-minute lecture on period instruments (below is Stephenson discussing the keyboard action of an 18th-century fortepiano), approaches to singing baroque music, and the structure and history of the Mass in B minor.
Is there anything else you would like to say or add?
I’d like to say a bit about the two venues where we’ll perform the Mass in B minor. “Where is it?” is one of the first questions most people ask when they hear of an exciting upcoming musical event. Because–particularly for classical music–the acoustics really matter. And the feel of the place, the vibe, needs to be right too.
The sound will be rich and the mood will be spiritually focused on Friday and Saturday as the Madison Bach Musicians and the Madison Choral Project collaborate in two performances of J. S. Bach’s monumental masterpiece the Mass in B minor, BWV 232.
The Friday concert will be given in the magnificent setting of the sanctuary at First Congregational United Church of Christ, at 1609 University Avenue, a landmark building in Madison’s cultural life.
The Saturday concert will be in the acoustically brilliant Atrium Auditorium (below in a photo by Zane Williams) of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive. The performances will feature a 24-piece period-instrument baroque orchestra, 5 outstanding vocal soloists, and a 17-voice professional choir from the Madison Choral Project.
Bach composed the Mass in B minor during the final 18 years of his life; adding, editing, and re-working it into his final year, 1750. The result is about 100 minutes of music that is instantly engaging, highly varied in its variety of ensemble and style, unified to the Nth degree, and structurally perfect. And somehow the Mass in B minor it is at once both magnificent and intimate.
The First Congregational United Church of Christ, with its neo-Georgian design (begun in 1928), captures the 18th-century ideals of dignified ambiance and sonic balance that Bach understood. The sound has tremendous detail, yet everything contributes to the warm cumulative tonal glow.
The much more recent Atrium Auditorium (below), built in 2008, at First Unitarian Society brings out the immediacy of the music-making. The sight lines are direct, and the acoustics brilliant; the audience feels very connected with the performers.
Both venues are absolutely perfect for period-instrument performance, which emphasizes the detail and vitality of the music rather than sheer decibels.
Seating is limited at both venues, so purchasing tickets in advance is highly recommended.