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Back home to sing Bach

Among specialist musicians Gisborne Choral Society musical director Gavin Maclean has imported from other centres for the company’s concert this weekend is former Gisborne man Philip Roderick.

Mr Roderick returned to his home town yesterday to take on the role of Evangelist in the choral society’s production of Johann Bach’s St John Passion. In Bach’s oratorio (large-scale, narrative work) the narration of Christ’s arrest, trial and crucifixion, falls to the tenor soloist.

“It’s an exciting challenge,” says Mr Roderick.

“I’ve done Evangelist roles before. I was the Evangelist in a production of Heinrich Schütz’s The Christmas Story which focuses on the Nativity. “Bach is more complicated.”

Bach was a contemporary of Schütz, whose work is long but more manageable, says Mr Roderick. Bach’s is more clever, though.

“His harmonies are better, he interrelates early parts of his music with later parts. He takes a musical theme and weaves it through other parts of the work. It takes a while to hear what he’s doing.”

The chorus, the body of sopranos, altos, tenors and basses, comment on the story as it unfolds but throughout the work they also act collectively as Jewish priests, then as a mob baying for a crucifixion, then as Roman soldiers. As well as narrating the action, the Evangelist also has some dialogue with Jesus, Peter, Pilate and the chorus, but he is a stand-offish character, says Mr Roderick.

As Evangelist, his role is to stitch it all together.

Although the Gisborne performance of the St John Passion will be Mr Roderick’s first crack at Bach, he has had considerable singing experience since leaving school (he attended Gisborne Boys’ High) and moving to Dunedin to study at Otago University. His subjects were classical studies and linguistics, but he also took up singing lessons.

Mr Roderick comes from a musical background. His mother Janet plays the violin and his late father Jack directed many musical theatre productions. In Gisborne Mr Roderick studied piano to grade 4 and played the clarinet.

Now based in Wellington where he works in research data analysis, Mr Roderick performs with two choirs. One is the capital’s chamber choir, Tudor Consort, a group that specialises in lesser-known choral music from the late Medieval and Renaissance periods. The other is the select Voices New Zealand chamber choir who often perform with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, and the Auckland Philharmonic Orchestra.

On Sunday at 2pm Mr Roderick joins Wellington bass singer Roger Wilson (Jesus) and Wellington City Organist Douglas Mews and the Gisborne Choral Society at St Andrew’s Church to perform Bach’s St John Passion.

ON HIGH: Former Gisborne man Philip Roderick has returned to his hometown to take up the part of Evangelist in the Gisborne Choral Society performance on Sunday of Bach’s monumental work, St John Passion. Picture by Liam Clayton