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Something to Mews on

The pipe organ is usually one of the many instruments that make up the orchestra in performances of Bach’s St John Passion, says Wellington City Organist, Douglas Mews.

“This time I am the orchestra.”

Mews is one of three guest performers Gisborne Choral Society musical director Gavin Maclean has imported from other centres to perform Bach’s challenging work. Narrated by John the Evangelist, Bach’s composition of two halves tells the story of Christ’s arrest by Roman soldiers and his crucifixion. The choir has two roles, says Maclean.

“It comments on the unfolding scriptural story, and participates as a contemporary crowd, variously Jewish priests, a mob baying for a crucifixion, and Roman soldiers.”

That is, the choir plays the part of devotees (“O great love, love beyond all measure)”, Romans (“If he were not a malefactor, we would not have delivered him to you”) then devotees again (“Rest well, holy bones”).

It’s complicated.

No ordinary keyboard

Mews will play the work from a score that has parts reduced to fit the keyboard. This is no ordinary keyboard but one that is fitted with towering flutes, pistons, a wind indicator, swell and crescendo pedals, toe studs, and a console of stop knobs.

“I don’t think it’s particularly reduced,” says Mews.

“I still need to do more to it. Bach did a lot of arrangements himself. He reduced Vivaldi’s concertos for keyboard so they end up with a keyboard style. He achieved this by not trying to include every note written for the orchestra. They’ve now become Bach’s concertos, in a sense.

“You have to make choices. You ask yourself ‘what’s important here? What’s important to get across at any particular time?’”

Some movements are more challenging than others, he says.

“A lot of movements are straight forward, but movements like the opening chorus to the Passion have a lot going on. You have a pulse that goes ‘do-do-do-do’ and long lines over the top and ‘bom-bom-bom’ on the pedals.

That sounds complex

“It sounds complex but it’s not that bad. The opening is exhausting but it’s early on so you’re still fresh. The last one is also very long but it’s very gentle.”

What is written on the page is a kind of theoretical arrangement that leaves room for the organist to do his or her own arrangements, says Mews.

“You develop a feel for what suits the keyboard. You can see in the music what’s going to be good on the keyboard.”

The music reacts to the voices and gives the organist something for them to react to like a conversation of argument, says Mews.

It creates a tension.

“Words and rhythm are what it’s about. Think of Baroque music as being spoken compared with Romantic music which is sung. You sing Bach, but the way he sets the words are very important. It’s less about melodies you can sing on the way home. It’s about the words and how you declaim them.”

The organ has long appealed to Mews because Bach’s work can be played on it. Bach wrote a lot of keyboard music, says Mews.“There’s a lot of emotion there, a lot of counterpoint — different things that work with each other or against each other, which is great fun.”

Gisborne Choral Society with Wellington City organist Douglas Mews performs Bach’s St John Passion at St Andrew’s Church on March 31, 2pm, $25 adults, $10 students at door.

CLOSE TO TIERS: Wellington City Organist, Douglas Mews, guest accompanist for Gisborne Choral Society’s production of Bach’s St John Passion, says there is much emotion and counterpoint in the work “which is great fun.” Picture supplied