Leipzig, Germany was the place to be on Good Friday after Johann Sebastian Bach moved there in 1723.
The Baroque composer spent the last quarter-century of his life in that major European center of culture and education, as music director of Leipzig’s principal churches.
Among his other duties, Bach was required to write sacred music for Sunday church services and special occasions. His accomplishments in that era include — according to his obituary — five Passions (musical settings of the Gospel) based on narrations about the final days of Jesus Christ.
Two of those sacred oratorios still exist: St. John Passion (which premiered at a Good Friday Vespers service in 1724), and St. Matthew Passion (first performed at a similar service in 1727). A St. Mark Passion, now known only through a reconstructed version, was first heard on Good Friday in 1731.
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It is unusual for both the St. John and St. Matthew Passions to be performed today in the same city during the same concert season. But that is what Seattle audiences will have an opportunity to hear over the next two weekends when Seattle Symphony Orchestra and Pacific MusicWorks (PMW) partner to present both Passions, sharing superior vocal talent while doing what each organization does best.
The Seattle Symphony, conducted by music director Ludovic Morlot, will perform the grand, complex St. Matthew — with its double orchestra, playing modern instruments, and double choir involving Seattle Symphony Chorale and Northwest Boychoir, on Friday and Saturday, Feb. 21-22.
PMW, led by music director Stephen Stubbs, takes on the shorter, more intimate St. John with original Baroque instrumentation Saturday, March 1, and Sunday, March 2.
Stubbs will play lute for both Passions, and the same nine vocal soloists will perform for St. John and St. Matthew: tenors Thomas Cooley, Charles Daniels and Aaron Sheehan; sopranos Shannon Mercer and Dorothee Mields; alto Laura Pudwell; countertenor Terry Wey; baritone Tyler Duncan; and bass-baritone Matthew Brook.
This Passions project began in 2012 during a meeting between Morlot and Stubbs.
“We got excited by the idea that we could do a twin performance,” says Stubbs. “If Seattle Symphony did St. Matthew in the big hall with the full orchestra and big chorus and nine fantastic soloists, we could do a Baroque version of St. John in [Benaroya’s] Nordstrom Recital Hall, with those same soloists doing what we think Bach actually did with them, turning them at times into a chorus.”
“If you haven’t had the chance to hear these works, you’re missing a big chunk of what music sounded like when Bach wrote for the church,” says Morlot. “I would call this an adventure because this is one of my first times in this area of Bach repertoire. It’s fresh ground for Seattle Symphony.”
The texts for both oratorios are taken directly from the Luther Bible, sung in recitative form but commented upon via arias and chorales.
“Because the St. Matthew text is longer and more expansive, Bach placed that Passion on a big, fantastic canvas,” says Stubbs. “Whereas the St. John text is more concentrated, inspiring a smaller but more dramatic composition.”
“I hope many people go to both Passions,” says Stubbs, “comparing big forces with small forces. We’re hoping both will make an equally positive impression and give people a chance to experience something they can’t experience anyplace else.”
Tom Keogh: firstname.lastname@example.org