Monday, March 22, 2010

Tenors, Bach and Passions

After my unexpected week back in Chicago, I still find myself in the land of Bach and the Passions – this time in the realm of St. Matthew. In a couple of weeks, I'll make my way through my first Evangelist in the St. Matthew Passion. When it comes to these two larger-than-life pieces, I feel like I've had the opportunity to discover each aspect of them in the perfect order. In college, my teacher, who loved these pieces dearly, pushed quite hard for me to begin learning them, hearing the possibility for them in my voice, but I never really dug in very hard without the impetus of an upcoming performance to force me to learn them. So, I bought the scores and glanced at them in college, but didn't really pick either of them up in earnest until my first St. Matthew Passion with Music of the Baroque a couple of years ago, in which I sang the arias.

The tenorial responsibilities in these passions differ greatly in terms of difficulty. All four roles (one tenor narrates the story as the Evangelist and another sings the arias in each) are challenging in the way that all of Bach's vocal writing is, but their challenges vary as does the level of difficulty. In both Passions, the challenge to singing the arias is the prolonged amount of time one has to wait before singing anything, as well as the fact that it seems that when Bach was writing the arias, he had two very different singers in mind, as the technical requirements and hurdles differ vastly from one aria to another. In the St. Matthew, the first aria and recitative are fairly high in tessitura whereas the second aria sits a lot lower. In the St. John, the differences are even greater. As in the St. Matthew, one aria sits significantly higher than the other, but the lower first aria is also quite dramatic and disjunct with the relatively heavy orchestration of a full string orchestra, while the much higher second aria requires not only some of the most delicate and controlled singing Bach ever demanded from a tenor (it is only scored for two violins and continuo) but also the utmost endurance. The phrase are almost never-ending, requiring incredible breath control and smooth, legato singing. The arias in St. John are perhaps some of the most technically treacherous music Bach ever wrote for tenor.

The challenges to both Evangelists are not just the normal vocal and harmonically challenging twists of Bach's vocal writing, but also the intellectual and dramatic challenge of narrating the story of each passion. In both cases, the Evangelist is responsible for the flow of the evening, linking the varied sections of each piece, and engaging the audience over a period of more than two hours. It's a lot of German, a lot of harmonically brilliant and strange recitatives, and a lot of storytelling. Vocally, the St. John is lower in tessitura than the St. Matthew as well as a bit shorter in length. I find the St. John Passion a bit more dramatic and direct, whereas I find the St. Matthew more meditative and longer, which, combined with it's much higher tessitura, requires much more concentration and focus as a result.

The order that I have had the opportunity to learn each of these parts has been ideal, and I am grateful for the chance that seems to have led me to these various circumstances. Beginning with the most manageable of the four roles, I was able to discover what the experience of performing one of these Passions is like. Then, by learning what seems to me to be the easier of the two Evangelists, I was able to make my first foray into telling this story and begin to get an understanding of what kind of responsibility that entails. Being pushed to learn the St. John arias so fast and in such a pressure cooker, now viewed through the luxury lenses of retrospect, was ideal. I was forced to look past the intimidation I felt when examining their technical pitfalls and rise to the occasion. Being with such a first-class group of colleagues inspired me to push through that intimidation, as well. And now, having had all of these experiences with both Passions, I feel ready to tackle what I consider the greatest challenge of the four - St. Matthew's high-voiced and long-winded story-teller.


Derek Chester said...

As a fellow tenor who has done both pieces in every variety (including both evangalist and arias in st. John) I completely agree with your post. There is such gratification to be had when accomplishing the matt evangilist. Congrats and good luck

Derek Chester

Heather Batey said...


It was a privilege to share this performance with you. I am absolutely amazed that this was your first Evangelist. I foresee great and repeated success with this role in your future. Best of luck with your career and I hope to sing with you again soon. Please come back to Birmingham anytime!

derreclair said...

As you two posters must be, I am a well-trained professional soloist but haven't yet done the St. John's Passion, either Evangelist or Arias role.
I have been asked to 'fill in' with a two week turnaround , for the Arias roles, namely that I must learn and polish the music in two weeks. I sight read very well. In general, how massive is my task to learn it in two weeks noting my bio as above? Thanks for your help.

nick said...

@derreclair both of the John arias pose unique technical challenges, and 'Erwäge' is perhaps one of the most difficult arias in the tenor repertoire. Beyond the basic learning of the notes, rhythms and words, the primary challenge will be figuring out how you will negotiate all of the technical hurdles of both arias. A significant challenge, but not an impossible one! Toi, toi, toi for your performance!