Random Thoughts On Performing The Bach Passions From An Old Evangelist

From time to time, the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir invites a guest to this blog. We are honored and pleased to welcome Dr. Michael Sells, former president of the Symphonic Choir's Board of Directors, retired Dean of Butler University Jordan College of Arts, and Professor Emeritus at Butler University.

In a 30-year solo career, I was blessed to perform the Evangelist role in Bach’s monumental Passions some 100 times, and about two-thirds of those performances were the Johannes-Passion. During that time, I learned a lot about choruses, conductors and, I hope, Bach.

The Passions are large, complex and challenging works involving, as they do, scripture from John’s or Matthew’s Gospel, “free” texts (opening and closing choruses and solos), and chorales (contemporary, communal reflections on the passion story). Add to this Bach’s own interpretation of the texts through the purely musical challenges therein, and one can see that there is a lot to contemplate and to consider in the preparation and presentation of such masterpieces of the choral repertoire.

In my experience, sadly, careful planning and preparation have not always been the case. I have performed the Passions staged; in German and English (on one occasion, both in the same performance); with all but the scripture narrative cut except for the opening and closing choruses and chorales (talk about earning my fee that night!); and even with all references to Jews expunged! More commonly arias have been cut or shortened, usually to save time or money, in spite of what that might do to Bach’s overall design.

It should come as no surprise, then, when I confess that the performances in which I participated ranged from the barely adequate to the musically satisfying to, in very few instances, the transformational. Why? In order for the Passions to really communicate their full messages to audiences (and performers), it requires a conductor who has the ability to envision the dramatic narrative, theological, and musical expressions as an artistic whole. Think about it. Who else can? In other words, just a terrific Evangelist, or great soloists, or even a well-prepared chorus and orchestra are not enough; there must be one artistic vision, and that can come only from the conductor. And it has been only by working with Robert Shaw, Helmuth Rilling, Fiora Contino, and a couple of other less well-known but highly competent conductors, that I have experienced the dramatic, spiritual, and musical unity of Bach’s magnificent creation.

But I close with good news. I know Eric Stark’s devotion to Bach, his musical abilities, his work ethic, and his artistic integrity. He has thought long and hard about how to approach this monumental work, and he is as equal to the challenge as anyone can be. Therefore, I am excited for him, for the ISC and for the audience. This may be Eric’s first Johannes-Passion, but I’ll bet it won’t be his last!

Michael Sells