American Bach Soloists start season with performance of ‘St. John Passion’

By From page A7 | January 23, 2013

The American Bach Soloists — the noted professional early music group from the Bay Area that has been performing regularly in Davis for several years — will launch their winter/spring concert series at Davis Community Church on Monday, Jan. 28. Their 7 p.m. performance that evening is of J.S. Bach’s monumental sacred oratorio, the “St. John Passion.”

Dating from the early 1700s, the piece exists today in four different versions, assembled during different periods of the composer’s life. The earliest version dates from 1724, when it was performed on Good Friday; a second version dates from the follow year; a third version was first performed sometime between 1728 and 1732; and a fourth version was performed in 1749, the year before the composer’s death.

Like much of J.S. Bach’s music, the “St. John Passion” largely disappeared from public view after the composer’s death in 1750. Bach’s major choral works were reintroduced to audiences in the 1830s, largely through the efforts of composer Felix Mendelssohn, who conducted a watershed performance of Bach’s other surviving Passion (“St. Matthew Passion”) in 1829, which launched a Bach revival. The “St. John Passion” was then performed under conductor Carl Friedrich Rungenhagen in 1833.

Bach left no indication in terms of which version of the “St. John Passion” he ultimately preferred — or at least, no document indicating the composer’s preference has been found by modern scholars. But according to Jeffrey Thomas, artistic director of the American Bach Soloists, “the 1725 version does have an advantage, due it its radical differences from the other versions, of being the most easily reconstructed, and therefore it can be presented quite literally and with some justifiable claim to integrity regarding Bach’s conception.”

“However,” Thomas continued, “the nagging questions comes to mind: Should the reconstruction of a particular version (compilation) of a work incorporate its later enhancements? For example, sometime between Version II (1725) and Version IV (1749), Bach added a violin to double the flute part in the soprano aria no. 35, possibly because he was not satisfied with the balance of the instruments. Should the violin be added to the sonority of this area in performances of Versions I, II and III?

“Since it is not possible to reconstruct an exact performance, we instead try to combine scholarship with our understanding of style to arrive at the guidelines for our performance (by the American Bach Soloists),” Thomas said. “In some cases, a sort of practical ‘compromise’ is inevitable: mature boy altos are not at our disposal, so we use male countertenors.

“And, of course, we turn to female sopranos to find the high level of musicianship required of Bach’s trebles. But, intentionally, we have decided to incorporate Bach’s later enhancements to this music presented in this version as described above.

“And although somewhat unusual in many of today’s performances of the Bach Passions, we use the 16-foot pitched violone (grosso) in the recitatives. It seems essential in such a work, with its constant shifting from recitative to interjected choruses, to retain the lower octave at almost all times.”

The soloists will be Aaron Sheehan, tenor (Evangelista); William Sharp, baritone (Christus); Clara Rottsolk, soprano; Brennan Hall, countertenor; Derek Chester, tenor; and Joshua Copeland, baritone. Local audiences may recall Sharp’s performance at the Mondavi Center in Handel’s oratorio “Messiah” (also heard in American Bach Soloists’ recording of the piece). The other soloists also have appeared with the American Bach Soloists in the past, except for Hall, who is making his debut with the group.

A pre-performance talk by Bach scholar and violone performer Steven Lehning will begin at 7 p.m.

Davis Community Church is at 412 C St. in downtown Davis. Tickets are $22-$60 general, $20-$55 students and seniors, available at www.americanbach.org or 415-621-7900. Seating is limited, but there may be a few single tickets available at the door. Series subscriptions are available.

Other upcoming concerts by the American Bach Soloists at Davis Community Church are:

* Monday, March 4, 7 p.m., music by Bach, Handel, Vivaldi; and

* Monday, May 6, 7 p.m., Handel’s cantata “Apollo and Dafne.”

— Reach Jeff Hudson at [email protected] or 530-747-8055.

Jeff Hudson

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