ShareThis Page

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

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

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.

click me