St. John Passion

Over the weekend, daughters E and T accompanied me to a concert of Bach’s Passion According to St. John. The Binghamton Madrigal Choir was joined by the choir of Trinity Memorial Episcopal Church, soloists, and an 18-piece orchestra for the performance.

Trinity Church was filled to capacity for the concert. I worked at Trinity for a couple of years in the mid-1980s and sometimes visited there afterward for concerts and services, as my friend Peter Browne served as organist and choirmaster there for many years. The choir stalls had been removed and the organ console moved to the center, a reminder that the organ had recently been extensively rebuilt, as the console used to be fixed in place. The accompanist of madrigal choir played the organ while Peter’s successor played the harpsichord.

Bruce Borton, under whose direction I sang for many years with the Binghamton University Chorus until his retirement, directs the Madrigal Choir and conducted this performance. It was great to see him conducting, even though we could only see him from behind.

The concert was very moving. I especially enjoyed the choral movements. I had had the opportunity to sing the St. John Passion with University Chorus in the ’80s, when we were still under the direction of founding director David Buttolph. I love to sing Bach and was remembering many passages as the choir sang, including how many (terrifying) times the choir has to begin a movement with no introduction, finding their pitches from the prior cadence.

In order to make the concert more easily understood, especially as it was just before Holy Week, the original German had been translated into English. The English translation was occasionally awkward, but it did allow the audience to join the chorus in singing the chorales that appear among the recitatives, arias, and choruses. When the director invited us to sing the chorales, which were printed in the extensive program, some people laughed as though they thought he was joking, but that is how the congregation in Bach’s time would have participated in the Passion.

My daughters and I thoroughly enjoyed singing the chorales. After the concert, the man who had been sitting in front of us turned around and said that someone behind him had a lovely voice. I told him that it was E and T.

As we were putting on our coats, the woman next to me told me that I had a nice voice, too. I know that I will never have as nice a voice as my daughters, especially E who had sung the soprano arias when she was in school, but it was a sweet gesture.

I want to thank all the musicians who made the performance of the Passion possible. It was also special to be able to attend a concert with my daughters. Because the last few years have been so intensive on the caretaking front, I haven’t been able to get out to cultural events very often, so it was extraspecial to be able to experience this together.

Bach fugue

Early this morning, I was driving to 7:30 Mass at a church that was a bit further afield than usual, so I put the car radio on and caught the cadence of an organ prelude. I immediately thought it was J.S. Bach, although I did then think, perhaps it would be prudent to withhold a conclusion until I had more than two measures to go on.

As soon as the fugue began, though, I knew it was Bach – and one of the preludes and fugues I had learned while I was at Smith. (For the other organ geeks out there, it was a Prelude and Fugue in G major, although I am not sure of the BWV.) Next, they spoke about how composers often borrowed themes from their own work or others’ work and played a choral movement that used the fugue theme, transformed into a minor key. (Maybe the US court system needs to hear a bit more about this long-time compositional practice.)

It was odd for me to think about my playing Bach on the organ. There is even a bit of wonder that I ever could. It’s been almost ten years since I have played on even a limited basis and even longer since I played such complex repertoire. Long-standing tendon problems in my right elbow led to years of physical therapy and finally surgery which we had hoped would fix the problem. However, I developed calcifications that caused the symptoms to recur, so I could only play for short amounts of time, not nearly enough to practice Bach fugues.

I had been still doing some accompanying for the choirs at our church, but almost ten years ago, we lost our church home, and I have barely so much as touched an organ since.

This spring and summer will be the tenth anniversary of a string of really painful life events, the aftermath of each still present in my life and the life of my loved ones in different ways. I have the feeling that these upcoming tenth anniversaries will be as complicated as a Bach fugue, but not nearly so organized.

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