The Morning Report
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A big debate in the music world swirls around the question of how a great composer like Johann Sebastian Bach would want his music to be performed today.
Would the 18th-century master want instruments that are historically appropriate or instruments that underwent changes after his death? Would he want choirs to be the same size as the groups he had at his disposal when he wrote a particular piece? Or would he relish the chance to flesh out an ensemble with extra singers? And would he tell modern-day instrumentalists to play as his musicians did, without much vibrato — the warm, emotional style that violinists, for example, achieve by wriggling their wrists?
That debate is playing out this month in San Diego. Slated for strikingly dissimilar interpretations are two of Bach’s finest choral compositions — the “Passion According to St. Matthew” and “Passion According to St. John,” which tell the Easter story from different parts of the Bible.
In the “St. Matthew Passion,” the La Jolla Symphony & Chorus will take the bigger-is-better approach by bringing together 181 musicians: six vocal soloists, 136 adult and children in the chorus, 38 orchestra players, and the conductor.
By contrast, Bach Collegium San Diego will present the “St. John Passion” in a much more intimate, chamber music-like production. There will be a total of 27 performers : nine singers and 18 instrumentalists. They use mostly replicas of instruments common in Bach’s era, with the conductor also playing the harpsichord, a precursor to the piano that was around in Bach’s day.
The two compositions weren’t written for the same number of musicians — the “St. Matthew Passion” is a grander work that calls for an orchestra and chorus divided in two. So a difference in scale is to be expected. Yet the two approaches widen the gap even further.
To find out more about the upcoming interpretations of Bach’s music, we turned to conductors David Chase, the choral director of the La Jolla Symphony & Chorus, and Ruben Valenzuela, Bach Collegium’s founding music director.
How important is it to try and duplicate the kind of performances that were heard when Bach was alive?
David Chase: For our group to do that, we’d have to be entirely different. Bach used a much smaller ensemble that we use.
Ruben Valenzuela: To me, it’s really important to aim in the direction of the composer’s sound world. It’s at the very core of why my group exists.
The La Jolla Symphony and Chorus is using many more musicians than Bach Collegium. Why?
Chase: I have a large group and I’m trying to use my singers and many of the orchestra members. The ‘St. Matthew Passion’ can support a more monumental ensemble than the ‘St. John Passion.’
Valenzuela: David is absolutely correct. ‘St. Matthew’ is scored for larger forces. ‘St. John’ is not.
What’s it like to conduct the “St. Matthew Passion” or “St. John Passion”?
Chase: I’ve only conducted the ‘St. Matthew Passion’ once before, in 1995. It was just astonishing, the culmination of everything I care about as a musician.
Valenzuela: The ‘St. John Passion’ was the very first piece Bach Collegium ever did, back in 2003. So we’ve come full circle. The rehearsals are daunting, like putting together a puzzle. Performing it is exciting and exhilarating — it’s such a dramatic story of redemption.
VOSD: Do you work with professional musicians or volunteers? Do you think San Diego audiences have a preference?
Chase: No, I don’t think they have a preference. If we do the music well, then we are serving our audience. The vocal soloists are paid. Nobody in our orchestra or chorus gets paid.
Valenzuela: The bottom line is whether the musicians are successful in reaching an audience. At Bach Collegium, everyone is paid. The musicians are specialists (in playing early music in this historically informed way) and most of them come from outside San Diego.
VOSD: How do you feel about modern versus old-style instruments in Bach performances?
Chase: I love both. I’ve learned so much from hearing groups like Ruben’s. But we have to use what we’ve got, which are modern instruments. I ask the string players to use less vibrato. But I don’t enforce that as strictly as early music conductors do.
Valenzuela: What I’m trying to do is look back to the original intent. In our orchestra, three-fourths of the instruments are replicas of instruments that were played in Bach’s time. The rest are old instruments from the 17th and 18th centuries. With the strings, we use vibrato sparingly, as they did in Bach’s time.
On YouTube, Bach’s music is played on everything from kazoo to electric guitar. What makes it so adaptable?
Chase: It has been proven over and over that the concepts in his music transcend the instruments for which they were written. So we find really moving interpretations that are played on instruments that Bach never could have imagined.
Valenzuela: No matter what instrument you use, it’s very rewarding to perform Bach. His art has so many strands — intellectual, theological, and more. It has so many ways to reach people.
If you want to get a sense of what contrasting Bach interpretations look and sound like, check out these videos.
This one is from a large-scale, 1971 performance of the “St. Matthew Passion” conducted by Karl Richter.
The other is from a compact, historically informed version of the “St. John Passion,” led last year by Jakub Burzynski.