Rare performance of major work by Bach in Boulder, Denver

Seicento presents original instrument version of St. John Passion

By Peter Alexander May 4 at 10:40 p.m.

Seicento, Boulder’s choral group that specializes in Baroque music, is thriving—and it’s thanks to Bach.

“I had a number of singers who asked me, could I be with you in the choir this year?” artistic director Evanne Browne says. “They want to do something this important!”

That “something important” is a historically informed performance of J.S. Bach’s 1724 St. John Passion. According to Browne that will be a first in Colorado. Performances will be Friday through Sunday in Arvada, Denver and Boulder (May 5–7; details below).

Seicento Baroque Ensemble with artistic director Evanne Browns (first row, left)

This major work is done a little less frequently than Bach’s St. Matthew Passion or Mass in B minor. And while modern instrument performances do happen from time to time, the difficulty of assembling all the pieces for a historically informed, original instrument performance makes that even more rare.

In addition to Seicento’s usual chorus, Browne had to assemble an orchestra of Baroque-era string and wind players from around the world. Colorado has Baroque string players, Browne says, but wind players—and especially Baroque bassoonists—are harder to find. Collecting the players was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle where the pieces are scattered around the world.

Rehearsal of the St. John passion featuring the Baroque contrabassoon played by Keith Collins

“I call it a Tetris puzzle,” Browne says. “It’s not just ‘it takes a village,’ it takes a city to do this! It is a huge administrative task, to fly these people in and figure out when they’re coming to the airport and where they can stay and all of that.”

Browne points out that there are a lot of people working behind the scenes who will not be seen onstage. “I have a good board, and I also have four or five excellent volunteers who have done incredible work. And donors and grant writers and publicity! It’s a bigger undertaking than anything that Seicento has done.”

Among the specialized instruments required are the Baroque bassoon, a contrabassoon that stands more than seven feet tall, and such rarities as the oboe ‘d’amore and oboe de caccia—oboes with distinctive sounds that are pitched differently than the modern instrument. “It’s not just using the instruments, it’s having knowledgeable instrumentalists who have spent years studying the style as well as perfecting the sound,” Browne explains.

She also has worked with the choir to achieve a historically informed stye of performance. She has trained the singers to achieve a sound that is brighter in places and less open on the higher notes. Another issue is the way musical phrases are shaped. “The choir is doing a lot of sub-phrasing within a long phrase,” Browne says. “Within one long phrase there are many divisions—it’s lots more detailed.”

Evanne Browne rehearing the St. John Passion with Seicento

A performance of the St. John Passion unfolds on several levels. The text from the Gospel of John is sung by a soloist identified as the Evangelist. His narration lays out the story of Jesus’s arrest, trial and crucifixion. Lutheran chorales are sung by the chorus, representing the response of the congregation of believers. The choir also sings the words of the crowd in John’s story, and framing choruses that open and close Bach’s score. Arias are sung by soloists that are settings of poetic texts chosen by Bach to illuminate the story.

Portions of the Passion that pose issues for contemporary listeners are passages considered antisemitic, when the crowd described as Juden (Jews) calls for Jesus to be killed. “There are issues with the text,” Browne acknowledges. “There’s a strong emotional response, and I think Bach’s music contributes to the controversy because it’s so well done.

“We’re not softening that, but what we are hoping to do is raise the consciousness of people who might not think about the presentation being antisemitic. We have talked about it, we have had good discussions. I wrote about it in the program notes, because I want people to know we’re not making a religious statement, we are presenting an historical work that is musically very worth while.”

That last point is especially important for Browne: the opportunity to present an important work as it would have been heard by the composer. It’s both an aesthetic and an educational mission. “Part of Seicento’s mission is about education,” she says. “That doesn’t just mean that we go to a school where there are children that haven’t heard Bach before—although we have done that.”

The mission includes helping the performers learn Baroque style and giving the audience the opportunity to learn about the musical works of the Baroque era. In fact, to reach the audience Browne has already posted an introduction the St. John Passion online (here.)

In the meantime, she is looking forward to the upcoming performances. “The choir is doing fabulously,” she says. “I think it’s going to be exciting for everybody. 

“It certainly is for me!”

# # # # #

J.S. Bach: St. John Passion
Seicento Baroque Ensemble, Evanne Brown, conductor

7 p.m. Friday, May 5, Arvada United Methodist Church, Arvada
7 p.m. Saturday, May 6, St. Paul Lutheran Church, Denver
3 p.m. Sunday, May 7, Mountain View Methodist Church, Boulder

TICKETS for live performances and livestream

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