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April 25, 2014

Conductor David Chin and the 2014 Rochester Bach Festival

Rochester Bach Festival

Three-dimensional theology

 , City Newspaper , Rochester NY


When lists of the great composers are compiled, Johann Sebastian Bach is usually placed at or near the top. And at the top of Bach's enormous and awesome musical output, many would place his two settings of the biblical Passion text: the story of the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Bach's "Saint Matthew Passion" is frequently heard during Lent, his "Saint John Passion" less often. But a concert this weekend presented by the Rochester Bach Festival gives audiences the opportunity to hear it.

Bach spent many years as the music director of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, where his many duties included the writing of hundreds of cantatas for daily and weekly worship, as well as larger pieces such as his Passions. Bach wrote the "Saint John Passion" for performance on Good Friday 1724. This very thorough composer wrote a setting of each of the Evangelists' accounts of the Passion, but only the "Saint John" and "Saint Matthew" versions survive in full. Only the text of a "Saint Mark Passion" survives, and nothing at all of a "Saint Luke."

Composers before Bach wrote settings of the Passion story, but his were the most ambitious and lasting. An opera depicting the Passion would have been unthinkable in Bach's time, but the musical intricacy and dramatic impact of his settings can be described as operatic. In both his existing Passions, Bach uses a tenor soloist as an Evangelist (narrator) and a bass or baritone as Jesus; other soloists play smaller roles (like Peter or Pontius Pilate), or sing arias reflecting on the events in the story. The chorus plays a very large part, either as people of Jerusalem or in singing chorales — hymn tunes Bach's Lutheran audience would have recognized (and to which they could have sung along).


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