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Come hungry for chorales

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Maxine Thévenot thinks it’s important for people today to understand the context of J.S. Bach’s sacred oratorio the St. John Passion.

Bach wrote it to fit within the context of a Lutheran church service, said Thévenot, who is conducting two performances of the work next weekend with the New Mexico Philharmonic and Polyphony: Voices of New Mexico.

The oratorio was first performed on Good Friday in 1724 in St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig, Germany with Bach conducting.

If you go
WHAT: J.S. Bach’s St. John Passion
WHEN: 7 p.m. Friday, March 15 and 3 p.m. March 17
WHERE: Cathedral Church of St. John, 318 Silver SW
HOW MUCH: $25 general admission, $40 preferred seating and $55 VIP seating in advance at www.nmphil.org, by calling 323-4343 or at the door

On the Sunday previous to Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday Bach would have been preparing his listeners with smaller works but without anything celebratory, she said.

“People would have been hungry for real music. So the Passion was an extraordinary presentation to feast upon,” Thévenot said.

The premiere, she said, would have been with a really small choir, and the 16 voices of Polyphony will not be much larger than that original vocal ensemble.

“Back then the soloists were often part of the choir,” Thévenot said. “We’re presenting it in a slightly different way. We do have six soloists, but two of them, bass-baritones Edmond Connolly and baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert, are also singing as members of the choir.”

Another contextual matter for today’s audiences to understand, she said, is that because the Passion happens within the liturgy, the chorales, or hymn tunes, really were well known to the St. Nicholas congregation.

Some scholars believe that some congregation members would have sung the oratorio’s chorales. They would have known the chorales because they were part of the Lutheran hymnody, Thévenot said.

The oratorio contains chorales, choruses, recitatives, arias and ariosos.

Four of the six soloists in the work – soprano Paula Swalin, countertenor Jeff Freuler, tenor Lawrence Jones and Herbert – are the only ones who sing arias.

“The arias are the human reflection upon the story that’s being told,” Thevenot said.

The oratorio recounts the last days of Jesus from the perspectives of Jesus, Pontius Pilate and Peter. There is also the role of the Evangelist, the narrator, which is sung by tenor Steven Wilson.

“It’s message is timeless. It is preaching the Gospel of St. John,” she said.

Thévenot is the artistic director of Polyphony and is guest conducting the Philharmonic.

“It’s a tremendous honor … conducting any piece of music with any great orchestra, but I think conducting Bach heightens everything,” she said.

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