On Tuesday, November 3 at 8:00 PM at Alice Tully Hall, the American Classical Orchestra presents J.S Bach’s St. John Passion, conducted by Thomas Crawford, with renowned tenor Rufus Müller as the Evangelist. Members of the American Classical Orchestra Chorus will be featured in the solo arias. Liana Guberman and Dan Dutcher spoke with Mr. Crawford and Mr. Müller about the upcoming performance.
Liana Guberman and Dan Dutcher: You mentioned that you performed the St. John Passion 15 years ago. What specifically has changed about you or your conception of Bach that gives you a new perspective on such an exceptional work?
Thomas Crawford: The very thing that is so incomparable about J.S. Bach's work, when one hears it as a child, only grows richer as one gets older. He is the only composer whose superior writing technique is in service of his emotions, while his emotions are in service of the writing. His music can move souls, whether on the most superficial hearing, or under the microscope of professionals such as myself. I saw a science-fiction program on television when I was seven, and the alien being from the future was performing a Bach two-part invention on an electronic keyboard, with his twelve fingers!! When asked why the alien would play a simple two-part music written 2,000 years earlier, he replied "there will always be Bach." It's true. Bach's music isn't just about great art or the aspirations of mankind, nor is it limited to his being at work in the baroque era, i.e. historically valuable. His music belongs to all people in all ages who seek music for solace, healing, inspiration, faith, intrigue, stimulation, relaxation, restoration, angst, resolution, mediation, light, darkness, love.
LG and DD: Are there any particular moments musically that have become more special to you?
TC: Several of the legendary arias are so moving that I feel my skin change when hearing them. The last chorus, evoking a body lying in peace after release from pain and a purposeful life, is without equal. And then there is the impact of the chorales, the hymns, which punctuate the drama in the role of a Greek chorus commenting on the unfolding story. The Bach chorales, in context such as in the St. John, are as reassuring as the rotation of the earth. Its also special to me that Bach's music provides the most meaningful potential to share private thoughts between performer and listener. We talk about music a lot, like this very writing, but in the end, music is primarily a matter of transmitting and receiving sympathetic vibrations between sender and recipient. Most of our performers will try to channel Bach at our November 3 performance, and most of the listeners will absorb the vibrations without a scant ability or need to verbalize the experience. Music such as this is worthy of the deepest access to the human soul....I realize that many people feel that as they listen, and none will know the impact on their lives years from now. That is why many people think of Bach as a "religious experience."
LG and DD: What is the musical and/or mental process you go through in order to prepare yourself for a performance?
TC: Musically and mentally I live, eat and sleep this score 24/7. There is the technical prep necessary coming into the first rehearsal....marking parts, lining people up, etc. My motto is to be overprepared. I can't predict what might be going on in my life at the time of making the music, so I have to have significant fallback resources in store.
LG and DD: Have you worked with tenor Rufus Müller before and what do you think about his interpretation of the Evangelist?
TC: I have given two past performances with Rufus. He was the evangelist for my St. Matthew Passion at St John the Divine Cathedral four years ago. That performance was dedicated to the memory of Stephan Hahn, father of the ACO's Chairman Emeritus Rob Hahn. Rufus is widely known as among the finest tenors to play this role in a generation. He does it from memory.
LG and DD: What is the one thing you hope that an audience member leaves the St. John Passion thinking or feeling?
TC: That life is a gift, that Bach adds so much to our perspective of time passing for the better, and that we are fortunate to have young singers and a period instrument orchestra populated with people who have dedicated their careers to communicating this art at the highest level. I think most of us feel the honor of passing this art music along through our generation of musicians and listeners.
LG and DD: What has drawn you to performing Bach’s works and the Evangelist?
Rufus Müller: Bach cantatas on the radio on a Sunday morning were a weekly breakfast event in my childhood in England. With a German pastor as a father, I was exposed to Evangelism (though not of the Evangelical kind!) from an early age. My father was a very compelling preacher, and believed in a muscular, flesh-and-blood Christ, so my images of Jesus were not of the blond, wispy, meek-and-mild variety. When I was first asked to sing the Evangelist in my twenties, I already knew what I wanted to do with the rôle, and have been trying to get to the essence of it ever since.
LG and DD: How do you prepare yourself dramatically for a role?
RM: That depends on the role. This role, now that I have sung it a few times, generally needs just a concentrated gathering of myself. Once all the rehearsals are over, the real dramatic preparation happens during the first chorus, which is enough to blow a boulder out of Central Park. If you're not prepared for telling the story after that, you may as well just go home and watch a movie.
LG and DD: Is there a moment in the St. John Passion that you find the most difficult to sing, musically or dramatically? If there is not a most challenging passage, then what is your favorite aria, part of an aria, recitative or section?
RM: Every time I sing this piece, a new difficulty presents itself, or a hitherto straightforward recitative suddenly reveals itself as being harder than I had realised. However, for all its obvious challenges, and some fiendish fireworks, it is not quite as brutal as the St. Matthew Passion, from which I could cite half a dozen scary rollercoaster rides. One favourite little section of mine is the lyrical but almost matter-of-fact description of the typical Jewish preparations of Christ's body for burial by his friends, which moves me strangely.
LG and DD: What is one of the most memorable performances you have experienced, either as a musician or a concertgoer yourself?
RM: Staying with the St. John Passion, my first experience of it was at my twin brothers' university in England when I was 15. I will never forget the impact of the opening chorus, which set me on the long path to the Evangelist. Another milestone was Peter Sellars's production of Messiaen's St. Francois d'Assise in Salzburg back in 1992. I was mesmerized, moved and astonished.
LG and DD: What is the one classical/baroque music recording that you cannot live without? Bach or any composer…
RM: I can live without any recording, as long as I can get to watch, or sing in, a compelling and committed live performance.
On Tuesday, November 3 at 8:00 PM at Alice Tully Hall, the American Classical Orchestra presents J.S Bach’s St. John Passion. The concert will be preceded by a pre-concert lecture at 7:00 PM by Maestro Thomas Crawford. Tickets can be purchased online at www.aconyc.org and lincolncenter.org; by calling Center Charge (212-721-6500) or the Alice Tully Hall Box Office (212-671-4050); or in person at the Alice Tully Hall Box Office.
Liana Guberman and Dan Dutcher are publicists with Dan Dutcher Public Relations.