Onward and upward

I fervently wish a happy new year for all of us, an increase in joy and prosperity, a lessening of pain, sorrow, and hardship. Here’s hoping that the coming year brings with it the compassion, the expanded understanding, the mercy, joy, and peace, about which we sing in so much of our music. Next Wednesday, Chicago Chorale begins rehearsing J.S. Bach’s Passion According to St. Matthew, which we will present on Sunday, March 29, at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel. This work is not new to Chorale: we performed it in March, 2008, at Chicago’s Church of the Holy Family; and I have sung it, personally, on several occasions. But it will be new to many of our singers and instrumentalists; and, effectively, it is new each time one performs it-- a piece so large, so rich and multi-faceted, yields new secrets, new complications, new insights, each time one approaches it. The sheer size and scope of it guarantees that any production of it will challenge us and require our utmost concentration and commitment.

I last sang in a production of the Matthew Passion six years ago, just months after conducting it myself, at the Oregon Bach Festival, under the leadership of Helmuth Rilling. Mr. Rilling knows the work, as scholar and as performer, as well as anyone on the planet; he has written and lectured extensively on it, and has conducted it hundreds of time, which he does entirely from memory—an incredible feat. In this particular performance, we had nearly reached the end, when his memory and concentration slipped, and he miscued the tenor singing the Evangelist role, and the continuo players supporting him. It was a small thing, almost surely unnoticed by the audience; to the Evangelist and the continuo players, however, as well as to the rest of us on stage who were following in our scores, it seemed enormous; after nearly three hours of the most intense concentration and involvement, we were living every note, every word, every gesture, along with Mr. Rilling. It felt as though he, and the rest of us, had approached the holy of holies, and had stumbled at the last moment, on the top step. After the applause and curtain calls, he retreated to his favorite place, outside the stage door, and lit up his accustomed cigar; it was clear he did not want to be approached by anyone except his family and closest friends. I walked by, keeping my distance, when he called out to me—“You—you know the mountains and valleys of this piece.” That was all. I was embarrassed; I thanked him for enabling me, and us, to be owned once again by this incredible work, then moved out of range.

This experience illustrates, for me, the essential, terrifying, humbling truth about this work: Bach’s Matthew Passion is indeed the holy of holies, the most comprehensive and influential single work of musical and dramatic art, reaching past the Western musical canon and the particulars of the Christian faith to describe, through music of unbearable beauty and power, the essentially tragic nature of our human condition. None of us can know it, can encompass it, can claim it as our exclusive property, can in any respect conquer it. Every musician I know, who has lived with this work, has in some respect been broken, shattered, and remade through the experience. Its mountains and valleys are the human condition, the life we lead on this earth. How this incredible vision, in all its complexity, can have been transmitted to us through the medium of the Cantor of Leipzig, has been the subject of countless books, articles, sermons, lectures, pronouncements; Bach’s legacy, indeed, “boggles the mind.” Chorale will endeavor, over the coming months, to come to an informed grip on both this legacy, and on the music which inspires it. I hope you will join us—both in exploring this legacy, and in experiencing our performance, on March 29.