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I’ll be Bach

The Last Supper is over, Jesus takes his disciples to a garden to sit with him but Judas has betrayed him and armed soldiers take the Messiah away.

This is the starting point of Baroque genius Johann Sebastian Bach’s oratorio St John Passion. The 1724 epic is a work of two halves but the Gisborne Choral Society (GCS) will perform it in X sans a sermon in the middle. St John Passion is a sacred work but no religious affiliation is required to dig it.

“Feel free to gain sustenance from this astonishing work any way you choose,” wrote Voices of Ascension Chorus & Orchestra artistic director Dennis Keene in his 2013 programme notes.

“One can listen to Bach’s St John Passion 1) as pure music, or 2) with general knowledge of the story... or 3) with detailed understanding of the text and its meaning.”

St John Passion is one of the greatest pieces Bach composed, says GSC musical director Gavin Maclean.

“It’s a great musical drama.

“Bach is a pinnacle of the Baroque period. In subsequent centuries, textbooks were based on the way Bach arranged harmonies.”

Two composer giants who followed Bach’s genius were Beethoven, of the Romantic period, and Mozart of the ensuing Classical period.

If the GSC thought their last big production - Beethoven’s Mass in C Major - was hard, Bach’s St John Passion is more of a challenge. Half hour, pre-rehearsal music lessons are a huge help to the musically semi-literate. They need to be. In a perfect world, Maclean would have the GCS perform at least one work by Bach a year.

“For the challenge,” he says.

“People do rise to it. You get smarter musically and technically.”

The text and a bit about its meaning

For St John Passion, Bach took the text of the Bible passages verbatim and had them sung by a tenor, the “Evangelist” who represents John while other solo singers take the parts of various characters in the narrative. Keene: “Throughout the piece, the action is frozen and Bach inserts some commentary on what has just occurred. These commentaries could be vocal arias, or traditional Lutheran hymns tunes (called “chorales”), with special texts written for this piece.”

“You get commentary in the arias and solos and in the chorales sung by the choir,” says Maclean in language the Guide better understands.

Bookended by two towering choruses the work has a satisfying symmetry, and people who have analysed the composition find all kinds of symmetries in it, says Maclean.

“But there are funny things in it...”

Not funny har-har. Funny esoteric. Suffice to say the Evangelist has a narrator role between the two big choruses.

“The exciting thing about the chorus is they keeping changing hats. The chorus switches in an instant from hymn tunes to being a bloodthirsty Jewish crowd baying for Christ’s blood.

“There are these wonderful transitions and contrasts. That’s what struck me after looking at it again after all these years. It’s pretty deep.”