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'St. John Passion' to be performed on all historical period instruments for second time in WI

'St. John Passion' to be performed on all historical period instruments for second time in WI

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J.S. Bach's "St. John Passion" has only been performed with historical period instruments once in Wisconsin -- in 2010 by the Wisconsin Chamber Choir. The Madison Bach Musicians intend to change that on Friday and Saturday when they undertake the second performance. 

The work will be performed at the First Unitarian Society Atrium Auditorium, 900 University Bay Drive, nearly 300 years after its debut performance on Good Friday in 1724. 

Audience members may be more familiar with Bach's "St. Matthew Passion", which "resurrected Bach", but the two are quite different, according to MBM founder and artistic director Trevor Stephenson. 

"The 'St. Matthew Passion' was interesting because it was about Jesus' humanity," he said. "Unlike the 'St. John' which is about the inevitability of the crucifixion. 'St. John' is very metaphysical and cosmic, like it's already happened. It's told in the present tense as a story that's unfolding. The text emphasizes the fact that this is a cosmic event that has to be." 

The work tells the story of Jesus' betrayal and crucifixion through song and Biblical passages. 

MBM will perform the piece on Baroque instruments so the music will sound likely as it did when it was first performed in 1724. 

"When you use period instruments with people who do it week in and week out, it makes the music sound more like it was just written," Stephenson said. "Because these instruments speak faster, they have richer overtones and they're more immediate sounding. The irony is that the older instruments make the music sound newer." 

When Bach was composing for his church in Leipzig, Germany he wrote a cantata a week for the Sunday service, according to Stephenson. 

The weekly cantatas would often run around 30 minutes, but the Passions are about two hours worth of music that would be divided into two parts to make room for a likely hour long sermon in the middle -- which made for a lengthy Good Friday service. 

Churchgoers would like have been happy to stay and listen, however, since the Passion performances also came after six weeks with no music in the church in observance of the Lenten season.

"Nobody had email to check, so this is what they did," Stephenson said. "this was the most important part of their life to understand the story."

Bach's Passions are as close as the Lutheran Church would have gotten to performing opera, according to Stephenson. 

The performance will remain in German as it was originally written with English supertitles provided. Stephenson will also conduct a 30 minute pre-concert lecture to address the history of the piece. 

"St. John Passion" is a complex work with a great deal of intricacy behind it. 

For instance, along with the lyrics of the piece, Bach included a lot of "word painting" in the music itself. 

Stephenson said "word painting" is when the music directly represents what is going on within the story. 

"Bach is trying as much as possible to show you the emotion as it goes on," he said. 

Adhering to what is believed to be the original circumstances of the piece, MBM attempts to give audiences a glimpse of what the original performance of "St. John Passion" could have sounded like. 

But it isn't just for the audience that MBM continues performing pieces on period instruments. Musicians too get a special experience out of period performances since the instruments can speak more quickly than their modern day counterparts. 

"We're talking thousandths of a second," Stephenson said. "But in music, the difference between engaging and not engaging is thousandths of a second. That's why we go to the trouble. It's fun -- it's like a time machine for us too."


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