Singing Bach’s “St. John Passion” in English

This weekend saw a culmination of an exciting project taken on by the Crouch End Festival Chorus, of which I am a member. Last August, the chorus recorded Bach’s St. John Passion (SJP) in English for the first time in 45 years. Alas, I wasn’t part of the recording, but I had the privilege of performing the piece with the choir this weekend in St. John’s Smith Square, a concert that coincided with Chandos’ release of the CD.

First, some background and thoughts on language: as you may know, Bach’s St. John Passion was originally written in German. It’s a magnificent oratorio, musically and dramatically. So why bother translating it into English?

As our music director David tells it, he saw a performance of SJP in English a few years ago and was at first scornful, being someone (like myself) who prefers pieces to be sung in their original language. But David said that hearing SJP being sung in English brought him much closer to the story and moved him in ways that the German version didn’t…because he could understand the words!

Sunlight streams over music. Yes, we were told to write “turbo charge” in our scores. I had to cross out some of the German so I wouldn’t sing in the wrong language.

In last night’s pre-concert chat, translator Neil Jenkins argued that the Bach Passions are acts of worship: they are, after all, oratorios set to Biblical texts about the Passion of Christ and thus often performed in the run-up to Easter. Jenkins made a similar remark to David’s revelation, in that hearing SJP in English brings the audience closer to the text and thus allows the audience to better perform the act of worship. The Bach Camerata’s lead cellist, also on the pre-concert chat panel, noted that for her and the other instrumentalists, hearing the choir sing in English allows the orchestra to add extra feeling in the right places — again, because they can understand the words. Jenkins talked about earlier English translations of SJP and how they tried to stick to literal translations from the German and the Bible’s actual words; but this meant that some words and phrases felt and sounded awkward to sing. In his translation, Jenkins made a point of retaining the meaning but also choosing words with comfortable vowels for the singers (thank you!).

Pre-Concert chat with Neil Jenkins (translator), David, and the Bach Camerata’s lead cellist/founder.

While I was initially skeptical of singing SJP in English, being a proponent of singing in the original language, I must admit that I got a lot out of the piece. Although I do speak German, it was exciting to experience the SJP’s story unfold in my native language and feel the immediate effects of the drama. It was also brilliant to sing with the Bach Camerata again; they are a fantastic period-instrument ensemble, complete with funny-looking wind instruments and a beautiful viola da gamba.

In rehearsals for this concert, the texts of the choruses sounded a bit random on their own. When we got to the dress rehearsal and concert at St. John’s Smith Square, though, everything came together with the addition of the soloists, led by Robert Murray as the Evangelist, or narrator, of the drama. The choir, I realized, acts many parts throughout the oratorio: the crowds of Jews, the priests, and the contemporary (in Bach’s time or ours) congregation commenting on the action. Despite not being a believer, I found some parts of the SJP quite moving.

Overall, the concert went well and the audience was enthusiastic; choir members in the audience gave us good marks for our diction. We had brilliant soloists in Murray along with Andrew Ashwin as Christ, Grace Davidson (soprano), Robin Blaze (countertenor), Nicholas Mulroy (tenor), and Ben Davies (bass). Some of the soloists, along with the Bach Camerata, are also on the recording that just came out.

I could go on, but I’ll let you read David’s blog post for more and send you to buy the CD here or here if you are interested. Thanks for reading!

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Singing Mozart & Britten at the Barbican

As a member of the Crouch End Festival Chorus, I was kept busy for the past six weeks as we spent one to two nights a week preparing to sing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Mass in C minor, K. 427/417a (1782-83) and Benjamin Britten’s Saint Nicolas, Op.42 cantata (1948). With a shorter rehearsal period than usual, we all had to put in extra effort, but I’d say it paid off in our concert at the Barbican on 18 October.

Photo credit: FZ

Photo credit: FZ

It helped that we had the London Mozart Players as our orchestra for the evening. They are an incredible group of professional musicians and it was an honor to sing with them. The soloist lineup was also impressive, the highlight being Grace Davidson, who sang the Monteverdi Vespers with us in February. Fellow soprano K referred to her as, “she who cannot be faulted” — yes, she is that good. Julia Doyle, Ed Lyon, and Dominic Sedgwick blended well with Davidson in the Mozart mass, and Ed Lyon performed a dramatic Nicolas in Britten’s cantata.

But on to the music. I would venture to say that Mozart’s Great Mass in C minor is one of the few well-known pieces that Mozart wrote in a minor mode, and it carries every bit of weight and drama you might know from works such as his Symphony no. 25 in G minor, Symphony no. 40 in G minorRequiem Mass, and parts of his opera Don Giovanni. Our director, DT, believes the Mass in C minor is even better than the Requiem — the latter, of course, is more often performed and enshrouded in the tragedy of Mozart’s early death before finishing it. But the Great Mass is glorious (and also happens to be unfinished). I love singing Mozart because it suits my voice well; the soprano parts sit comfortably in my upper register and I’m able to bring out my operatic vibrato sound, cultivated back in my Oberlin Musical Union days thanks to exposure to many talented voice majors. My favorite movements to sing in the Mass in C minor were the opening “Kyrie” and the powerful “Qui tollis”:

Along with the heavy and dramatic bits, Mozart’s mass has plenty of tricky runs and a couple of fugues that hearken back to Bach, Handel, and Monteverdi. Much of the solo writing foreshadows Mozart’s late operas. I just love it.

Photo credit: FZ

Photo credit: FZ

In contrast to the Mass in C minor, Britten’s cantata Saint Nicolas can only be described as “quirky.” Britten wrote it in 1948 for amateur singers and musicians (plus a solo tenor part for his partner Peter Pears to sing), so it has choral parts for boy sopranos, and small choruses for childlike soprano and alto voices. We had three school choirs join us for those parts, which created a lovely balance of adult and children’s voices. Based on the life of Nicolas, who became the patron saint of sailors and children as well as Santa Claus, Britten’s cantata tells a compelling story of Nicolas’ life, works, and piety before he becomes a saint. The cantata has drama, journeys to Palestine, a storm at sea, and even pickled boys. Britten has also embedded two hymns in the work, which DT rehearsed with the audience so they could join in at the right times.

An Oberlin friend, who is an accomplished musician himself, came to the concert and said that the chorus was “really quite impressive,” especially for an amateur group. Thanks, S! I think the concert went really well and it was incredible to sing with the London Mozart Players. Some audience members complained that the Mozart Mass in C minor was “too much of a sop-fest,” but I didn’t mind a bit. Britten’s cantata was a nice contrast to the mass and highlighted our chorus’ ability to make musical connections with school choirs as well as professional musicians.

Next up: Bach’s Mass in B minor at the Barbican in January. Get your tickets now!

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Go for Baroque: Singing Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610

I’ve come to realize that chorus concert days are sort of like track meets: it takes a lot of endurance, focus, and conservation of energy to get through a long afternoon and evening. We have a 3-hour afternoon rehearsal, an hour-ish break, and then the concert. Like track meets, it’s tricky to figure out how and when to eat on concert days. I usually have to leave the house around lunchtime, travel an hour or so to the venue, sing for a couple hours, take a short break, sing more, take a longer break, and perform. I’ve finally discovered that frequent ingestion of high-energy food is the key to keeping me going on concert day: nibbles of oatcakes and cheese, a peanut butter and banana sandwich, apples, even sports drink.

Anyway, all that goes on in the background of rehearsing and performing incredible music in gorgeous venues, as I was fortunate enough to do as part of the Crouch End Festival Chorus this weekend. We performed Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610, accompanied by the period-instrument English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble and fronted by a fantastic group of soloists. The venue was also beautiful: 300-year-old St. John’s Smith Square, a large church just south of Westminster Abbey that is now used primarily as a music venue (not surprisingly, as the acoustics are wonderful).

Gosh, where to begin? Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 is a remarkable 90-minute piece, full of florid early Baroque runs, trills, and invitations for improvisation for the soloists and musicians. The chorus is split into two choirs for most of the piece, as the various movements demand up to 10 different vocal parts. Traditionally, the choir would have been all men and boys, but in today’s modern age the top 3-4 parts are sung by women. It’s also really meant for a chamber choir, with just a few voices per part, but our director (DT) decided to go for the challenge of getting 140 of us to sound like a small choir. Here’s the masterful John Eliot Gardiner leading his professional Monteverdi Choir in a performance of the Vespers:

Intonation and blend are key in a piece like this, which requires a pure sound and Italianate Latin vowels. Diction is tough to coordinate and execute well — especially Latin, as these Brits speak with so many diphthongs! — with so many singers. And the standards were high, as we were accompanied by the well-known English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble, who could probably play the Vespers in their sleep! (side note: cornetts are really cool and the theorbo was likened to a “Renaissance banjo” by DT.) Not to mention the incredible soloists, all clearly trained in the unique early Baroque style, which requires so much vocal control to sing all those 16th and 32nd notes. Highlights include the two sopranos singing “Pulchra es” (24:15 in the above video) and the tenor duet/trio with baritone, “Duo seraphim” (36:24, above).

Although I may be biased, I think we pulled it off. Even if not, it was certainly challenging and great fun to sing. Despite the Vespers being a religious piece, DT kept emphasizing that, in fact, Monteverdi’s music is incredibly sensual and erotic (ever seen/listened to his operas? I can still remember seeing Oberlin Opera Theatre perform Poppea back in 2008 and being struck by the sensuality of the 17th-century music). I completely agree. Part of what I enjoyed about singing the Vespers of 1610 is the variety of moods and styles in the piece: in some sections we had to sound like a children’s choir, while in others we broadened our sound to that of a symphonic choir. It was a real treat to sing this 400-year-old piece of music and start to get inside its complexities. Well done all!