YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Bach to Basics of 'St. John Passion'

Music * William Hall will use original instrumentation when his chorale performs the reflective work this weekend in Newport Beach.


Johann Sebastian Bach is considered such a musical colossus today that it's hard to imagine he ever had to apply for a job.

It may be even harder to believe that he got one of them only with the rather grudging approval of his employers. But that's true too.

"As the best men could not be got," one Leipzig town councilor of the day said, "[we] must make do with the mediocre."

So Bach, the "mediocre" musician, became cantor of the city of Leipzig in 1723, a position socially inferior to his earlier post at the court at Cothen.

The Leipzig years were not always happy. Bach did not respect his bosses, and they found him uncooperative and argumentative. Nonetheless, he wrote an exorbitant number of masterpieces there.

"The Passion According to St. John"--actually written in Cothen--was one of the first Bach performed in his new city; it was Good Friday, April 7, 1724.

The William Hall Master Chorale will sing the piece in Newport Beach on Sunday--the day Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter--as a finale to chorus' 43rd season.

"The 'St. John Passion' doesn't have the same kind of grandeur that [Bach's 1727] 'St. Matthew Passion' has, but it has a reflective nature that is rather remarkable," William Hall said in a recent phone interview.

The text is drawn from Chapters 18 and 19 of the Gospel according to St. John, plus some verses from the Gospel of St. Matthew and poems by various minor authors.

Bach later made a number of versions, interchanging the opening and closing choruses and adding or deleting chorales.

"I'm doing the first version," Hall said. "We're going to stop with 'Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine' (May Your Holy Body Rest in Peace), which is very similar to the ending of the 'St. Matthew Passion.'

"He did add a final chorale at the second performance as a favor to the congregation. But we're not doing it."

Hall will use original instrumentation, including a lute. "Bach used a lute a number of times in other works," Hall said, "but only in one number in this, 'Bethink thee on my soul.' Since we're doing it in German, it's 'Betrachte, meine seel'.' A lute wouldn't work in the [Orange County] Performing Arts Center, but it works in the church."

Scholars argue about how much Bach used an organ or a harpsichord to accompany the narratives in the work, in addition to an orchestra for the choruses.

"I'm trying to balance what works well with a voice," Hall said.

The soloists Sunday include former Metropolitan Opera and New York City Opera baritone Richard Fredricks in the role of Jesus and Jonathan Mack as the Evangelist. The quartet soloists will be soprano Patricia Prunty, mezzo-soprano Martha Jane Weaver, tenor Robert MacNeil and bass Luis Lebherz.

"Bach said you have to have at least six soloists," Hall said.

Hall will divide his large chorus into several groups to fit the nature of the music.

The performance is dedicated to one of his singers, Mei Chang, who was killed last week in an automobile accident. "She was one of my wonderful singers and supporters," Hall said. "She had been with the chorale for some 30 years."

The chorale will leave for Europe on June 21 for a 14-day tour that includes stops in Dresden, Germany; Vienna; Budapest, Hungary; and at Bach's church in Leipzig.

After that, Hall plans a rest.

"This will be the first summer that I'm simply going to hide and do some composing and get into some things I haven't done," he said. "And get ready for our 44th season."

* William Hall will conduct his master chorale in Bach's "Passion According to St. John," Sunday at 3 p.m. at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, 600 St. Andrews Road, Newport Beach. $18-$50. (714) 556-6262.

Los Angeles Times Articles