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April 13, 2000

Pitt's "St. Matthew Passion" performance a first with period instruments, historical conditions

Johann Sebastian Bach wrote the "St. Matthew Passion," his musical treatment of the story of Christ's crucifixion, for two choirs, vocal soloists and instruments popular at the time (1727) — wooden flutes, baroque oboes, and violins and violas with gut strings.

This weekend in Heinz Memorial Chapel, to mark the 250th anniversary of Bach's death, Pitt's Department of Music will recreate the work as it would have been heard in the composer's day.

"This will be the first time that the 'Passion' will be performed in Pittsburgh with period instruments, under historical conditions," said Pitt music professor Don Franklin, who will conduct the piece.

In keeping with 18th-century practices, the Pitt performance will place choirs on opposite sides of the Heinz Chapel altar. Likewise, vocal soloists will be part of the choirs. "We're not separating the soloists, as you would see at a Heinz Hall performance, where the prima donna sits there in her gown and the choir sits behind," Franklin said.

Instruments will include that outdated oddity, the oboe da caccia. "It's played like an oboe but it has a brass bell and it's curved," Franklin explained. "Bach loved it and wrote a fair amount of music for it. It has a very low, rich sound. It's often used for melancholy pieces and, of course, there are several of those in the 'Passion.'"

With gut strings in place of steel, and wooden flutes instead of many-keyed silver ones, the instruments will be lower in volume and less resonant than modern ones. Singers will employ less vibrato. "It will sound more like chamber music," Franklin said.

What the performance will lose in sonic brilliance, it will gain in intimacy and continuity, he predicted.

"For example, when Jesus sings, 'I am in turmoil,' he will declaim the line like a Shakespearean actor. It will be much less operatic and histrionic than a modern performance."

With fewer dramatic pauses, Pitt's "St. Matthew Passion" will take less than three hours to perform, including intermission. "The 'Passion' is Bach's longest work," Franklin noted. "A modern concert hall performance would be closer to three-and-a-half hours in length."

The Heinz Chapel performance will be in German, but each audience member will get a program with a line-by-line English translation.

Pitt will stage the "St. Matthew Passion" on April 15 at 7 p.m. and April 16 (Palm Sunday) at 3 p.m. Bach himself would conduct the work only once a year, on Good Friday, in a Leipzig church seating approximately 700 people. Heinz Chapel seats about 500.

"It's written in two parts, and would have been performed [in Bach's day] with an hour-long sermon in the middle. We'll just take an intermission," Franklin promised.

A Bach scholar who plans to attend at least six international conferences this year to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the composer's death, Franklin pointed out that the tradition of performing the "St. Matthew Passion" in concert halls began in 1829, after Felix Mendelssohn "rediscovered" the work in a Berlin library. "Mendelssohn rearranged the work for dramatic purposes. He used a chorus of more than 100 singers" — the Heinz Chapel performance will feature a 24-member choir and eight soloists — "and doubled many of the instruments," Franklin said.

How would Bach have reacted to hearing the "Passion" played on modern instruments, in concert?

"First, I think he would be surprised to hear it being performed in a concert setting," Franklin speculated. "As for the sound, a modern orchestra probably would have overwhelmed him. It might have sounded cacophonous to him. No doubt, it would have sounded foreign — maybe that's the best word.

"To suggest that Bach would not have enjoyed it is silly. It's like saying he wouldn't have enjoyed hearing his music played on the piano. He probably would have, in a good performance. But the point is that the piano wasn't available to him. If it had been, he would have written different kinds of music for it.

"It could be that a modern performance of the 'Passion' would be a revelation to Bach, although I think mostly it would be foreign and a shock to him."

Bach might have been shocked, too, by the budget for the Heinz Chapel production. In fact, Franklin refused to reveal it, except to say it will be four times the cost of previous concerts in Pitt's Bach Cantatas series, now in its 10th year. Among the sponsors of the "St. Matthew Passion" performances will be the Vira I. Heinz Endowment and a major, individual donor who wishes to remain anonymous.

Featured in the performances will be the Collegium Musicium, comprised of early music specialists from the eastern United States, and Heinz Chapel's Cantata Choir. The latter includes a number of Pitt students and employees, among them staff member Heather Eng (epidemiology) and faculty members James Funderburgh (ophthalmology) and Francesca Savoia (French and Italian languages and literatures).

The role of the Evangelist will be sung by Englishman Timothy Leigh Evans, who has recorded with several internationally known early music ensembles. Jesus will be sung by Brent Stater, founder of the Sewickley Bach Festival. Other soloists will include Heinz Chapel choir director John Goldsmith and Pitt Men's Glee Club director Richard Teaster.

Franklin said the production's major expense will be for the orchestra.

During a typical Bach Cantata Series concert, musicians get paid for only a couple of days, but the early music specialists have been in town since Tuesday. "Heinz Chapel will be available to us for six days, which is unprecedented," Franklin said.

For tickets and more information, call 624-4125.

— Bruce Steele

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