J. S. Bach’s St. John Passion

The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra performed Bach’s St. John Passion at the Ordway in St. Paul, MN. The Ordway is a beautiful, luxurious building located in downtown St. Paul and hosts a variety of performing arts. The concert hall of the Ordway, where this concert was held, was uniquely designed. Walking into the concert hall, I noticed that stage was not elevated, but the audience was elevated, like an amphitheater. The seating goes all the way around the stage. There are three rows of about 20 behind the stage. The seats we had were behind the stage, but the acoustics were beautiful. We could hear the vocalist and instrumentalist wonderfully even though they were projecting their sound away from us. I believe the wonderful acoustics are due to the design of the ceiling. The ceiling is folded creating a wave appearance. The waves of the ceiling are curved in such a way that allow the sound waves to bounce off and travel behind the stage.

J. S. Bach composed a passion for each of the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The passions are inspired directly from the gospels and bring the gospel to life through music as a form of worship. Worshiping through music has been valued by the church since the beginning, and even in the bible, “All the earth bows down to you; they sing praise to you, they sing the praises of your name” Psalm 66:4. Bach, like Luther, turned bible passages into hymns. Bach did Luther one steep farther by turning each gospel into a passion. As the composer, Bach was able to set the tone for each movement in the passion. He was able to set the tone for how the story of Jesus’ crucifixion was told. He was able to tell the story how he understood and interpreted it in away that others might be able to learn from as well.

The performance was just as beautiful as the concert hall. The performers, both vocal and instrumental, brought the music to life. They did not just play or sing the notes but gave the notes character. The music had emotion from the mix of dynamics, tone, rhythm. The performers performed the music. The solo vocalist became their character through body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. The Evangelist especially, the narrative role, set the tone and emotion for each movement. He was able to take emotion Bach had felt for the gospel of John and had composed into the passion and bring it to life, thus enabling the audience to feel the same emotions about the gospel of John as Bach did.  

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