Preparing a Masterpiece

I choose Chorale’s repertoire, and plan our programs, on the basis of personal preference and “gut reaction” more than anything else.  Yes, I consider such factors as difficulty, cost, marketing, season, venue, and the likelihood that our singers will have an enjoyable, instructive time learning the music.  But if I don’t respond positively to the music in the first place, I will not enjoy working on it, and everyone involved will suffer.  There is a lot of music out there and I am happy to leave a good share of it to others -- I don’t expect to run out of welcome challenges.

Having chosen a piece, I wall off the emotional nature of the choice process and set about studying the music, justifying it, building a case for my choice and my approach.  I may start with Wikipedia or by asking advice and guidance from a music academic.  I gather and read books, articles, and even dissertations.  I purchase and listen to recordings and read the notes included with the CD’s.  I play through the scores on the piano.  I do all of this before I even order scores for the group, because if a work is available in several editions, I want to be sure to get the one most suitable to Chorale’s needs.  I have to be able to say/write something that is informed and helpful, long before we even begin rehearsing, to be used in our brochure, press releases, and newsletter concert announcements.  Then, during our rehearsal period, I write weekly blog posts, write emails to the choir, and provide information about the piece during rehearsals, usually off the cuff, so I have to have a good understanding of the piece throughout.  Chorale’s singers are smart and educated.  They listen carefully and will question the things I say.  If they feel they cannot trust me, our morale and sense of ensemble will suffer.

I have lived much of my adult life in proximity to the University of Chicago—I attended the University for four quarters and conducted its choirs for twelve years. Although I am no academic, I have been forced many times to justify my choices and statements to people who are, and I always think of these smart neighbors of mine as our audience.  They probably don't pay as much attention to what I say and write as I think they do, but I don’t want to feel foolish or ashamed when I meet them in the grocery store.  I do what I can to maintain a certain standard—my impression of their standard—and to welcome, fearlessly, their skepticism and questions.

One must tread carefully, with both academics and performers, in preparing and writing about Bach’s St. John Passion. So much has been written, so much has been recorded, and there are radically differing approaches and convictions concerning the manner in which his music should be performed. One risks adding to the confusion and ending up with an incoherent, indefensible performance if one does not embark on this journey well prepared.  It has been my good fortune to have sung a lot of Bach in my life.  I love his music, my talents are suited to it, and I have had a lot of specialized training in performing Baroque music. I have sung his major works, as well as his motets and many of his cantatas, many, many times, under good conductors and with good colleagues.  So I begin my reflection and study from the standpoint of personal experience. I know what his music feels and sounds like to me, and can extrapolate from this some understanding of the problems, as well as the joys, my performers and our audiences are likely to have.

But I need more than personal experience, or the experience of my teachers and conductors, to tackle a problem so huge as the St. John Passion.  So I read a lot.  I began, in this case, with the magisterial biography of Bach by Christoph Wolff, Johann Sebastian Bach:  The Learned Musician. It is a huge book, a summer’s worth of reading.  I have selectively augmented this with The New Bach Reader, recently update by Wolff, and Laurence Dreyfus’ Bach’s Continuo Group. Another invaluable, aid, has been Hearing Bach’s Passions, by Daniel Melamed.  A scholar whose journal articles and reviews have been extremely helpful is John Butt.  Robert Marshall, formerly a professor at the University of Chicago, has written extensively about Bach’s Passions, particularly about the perceived anti-Semitism in the St. John Passion, and I have had the good fortune to have heard a series of lectures on the same subject, presented by Michael Marissen at the Oregon Bach Festival.  And I have received a great deal of help and guidance from Dr. Uri Golomb, of Tel Aviv University.  I became aware of his Doctoral dissertation, Expression and  Meaning in Bach Performance and Reception: An Examination of the B minor Mass on Record, while preparing Chorale’s performance of the B Minor two years ago, and have corresponded with him since that time.  He has pointed me toward several helpful articles, answered random questions, and made me aware of a recent dissertation by Michael Troy Murphy, entitled Performance Practice of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Passio Secundum Johannem: A Study of 25 Years of Recorded History (1982-2007) as Influenced by Events Surrounding the Historically Informed Performance Movement, which includes an exhaustive survey of recordings made during the specified time period.  I also have studied a number of different recordings, notably those by John Elliot Gardiner, Philippe Herreweghe, and Helmuth Rilling.

Altogether, preparing and presenting a Bach passion is a big job.  But it is worth every minute.