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Bach's Easter masterpiece, 'St. John Passion,' a first for PSO

| Wednesday, March 2, 2016, 9:00 p.m.
Felix Broede
Conductor Manfred Honeck

It's taken a long time for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra to get around to performing Johann Sebastian Bach's “St. John Passion.” But the week after it celebrated the 120th anniversary of its founding, the orchestra will finally perform this 18th-century masterpiece for the first time.

Previous performances in Pittsburgh of the “St. John Passion” have been rare, including excellent ones by Jeannette Sorrel and Apollo's Fire in March 1999 for Renaissance & Baroque and by Don Franklin and Chatham Baroque in March 2011.

But then, performances of Bach's more famous “St. Matthew Passion” in town also have been rare.

Manfred Honeck will conduct vocal soloists, the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in a semi-staged version by Sam Helfrich on March 4 and 6 at Heinz Hall, Downtown.

Bach's Passions tell the story of the final days of Jesus Christ and were written for Easter. George Frideric Handel's “Messiah” also was written for Easter performance but addresses Christ's whole life and is now a Christmas staple.

The “St. John Passion” is the earlier of the composer's two surviving passion settings. It was first performed in 1724 and revised the next year, around 1730, and in the late 1740s, shortly before his death.

Although long overshadowed by the “St. Matthew Passion,” the standing of the “St. John Passion” has risen in the past half century.

Conductor John Eliot Gardiner calls it the more radical of Bach's passion settings, using operatic elements and a cast that includes clear-cut villains, a “hero-cum-martyr” and secondary characters, yet emphasizes, nevertheless, it is not an opera in purpose or conventions.

“It is as bold and complex an amalgam of storytelling and mediation, religion and politics, music and theology as there has ever been, and a climactic manifestation of the spirit of music drama,” he writes in his book, “Bach, Music in the Castle of Heaven.”

Honeck enjoys bringing enhanced perspectives to his performances. His “The Death of Mozart,” for example, added words and extra music to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's “Requiem.”

He's not the only conductor to do so. Sir Simon Rattle collaborated with director Peter Sellars on the “St. Matthew Passion” with the Berlin Philharmonic.

The symphony's semi-staged production of the “St. John Passion” will be much simpler than Helfrich's version of “Messiah” — with hardly any set and the orchestra onstage — but shares with it the ambition to show the relevance of the story to how we live our daily lives.

“In this piece, I'm asking the audience to hear the story and ask themselves questions,” the director says. “What's a great thing about the ‘St. John Passion' is that the chorus asks questions directly at the audience. So, I'm trying to get the audience to reflect upon the story and reflect for themselves.”

Honeck previously conducted the work in concert in Stuttgart. He sees it as having four elements.

“It is very important to know all the arias reflect the emotions,” he says. “This is one of the most important elements in the piece, the projection of emotions from deep inside a human. You see the narrative perspective expressed by recitatives and by the dramatic choir. The third element is prayers in the form of Protestant church songs.”

To this familiar three-part division, Honeck adds the role of the opening and closing choruses, which he views as “warnings.”

Honeck says the core of the “St. John Passion” is probably the aria “Es ist vollbracht” (The End has come) because of “the emotion the alto sings here after Jesus Christ has died. It is played on viola da gamba (and) is very sad in a Baroque-Romantic way.”

Mark Kanny is the Tribune-Review classical music critic. Reach him at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

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