J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is at least three different works.
It is a sacred work, written and performed in Bach’s lifetime as part of Good Friday services at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. It is a concert work that has been performed apart from religious services for most of the 266 years since Bach’s death. And it is a dramatic work, the closest Bach came to writing an opera.
This weekend’s performances by the Boulder Philharmonic, a semi-staged production presented in conjunction with the Boulder Bach Festival, Central City Opera, the CU College of Music and the Boulder Children’s Chorale, will definitely tilt toward the third option.
“I’m pleased that the Boulder Philharmonic can bring together this kind of collaborative union of these different organizations,” says Michael Butterman, Boulder Phil music director. “I’m looking forward to a chance to do it in a way I’ve never done it before, with a director and these great organizations.”
Bach’s score unfolds on different levels: There is a tenor singing the biblical narration, a baritone singing the words of Jesus, and individuals from the chorus who sing the words of other characters named by St. Matthew; there is a double chorus, which sings large choral movements that introduce and close the work, the words of the crowd, and Lutheran chorales that symbolically represent the reaction of the congregation; and there are aria soloists who sing non-biblical poetic texts that reflect upon the story.
To these musical events, this performance will add an onstage dramatization, but not in a literal way. “There’s very little that’s literal action,” says Stage Director Robert Neu. “It’s much more stylized and a little more abstract, and there’s some ritualized movement.
“What we’re trying to do is take it a little bit out of the realm of a traditional concert performance. The piece is very operatic in the way it’s shaped, it’s very dramatic, but given the nature of the piece, you can’t be overly literal about it.”
Everyone will be dressed in some variation of black, Neu says, and some of the singers will make entrances and exits. Because they sing throughout, Jesus and the narrator will remain onstage. The chorus will be symbolically brought into the action as well.
Through the limited staging, Neu and Butterman hope to make the performance relevant to all listeners. “This story is so humane and so human that you don’t have to have a Christian belief system to embrace the love and affection that’s in this piece,” Neu says.
Butterman echoes Neu’s comments. “I really think it’s a piece for everybody,” he says. “I don’t think you need to be a religious person to find the music unbelievably moving and the drama of it very compelling and miraculous to see unfold in Bach’s hands.”
As a product of the Baroque era in music, Passion is often performed by specialized ensembles. A standard symphony, the Boulder Phil will add a few Baroque-era instruments for the performance — viola da gamba, oboes d’amore, a harpsichord and small organ — and they will use techniques derived from the historical performance movement.
“Stylistic approaches that were largely illuminated by the early music movement of the past 40 years — articulation, dynamic shadings, minimal use of vibrato — are things we’re going to bring into the performance,” Butterman says.
On the other hand, he seeks another kind of authenticity, one that reflects the impact of the music on the audience rather than, he says, “imitating or reproducing some exact set of sounds.” For example, performing in a 2,000-seat auditorium requires a larger orchestra and chorus than Bach would have used in his church in Leipzig.
Both stage director and conductor are thrilled to be working on an artistic monument like the St. Matthew Passion. “It’s such an overwhelming masterpiece,” Neu says. “When you confront a piece like that, your first thought is, ‘Who am I to tackle this piece?’ You ultimately go to the incredible human story.”
Butterman has conducted the St. Matthew Passion once before and is thrilled to return to it yet again. “On the surface it’s something that I love and is beautiful, but when you look at all the impossibly nuanced structural details — just spending time with music like that is a privilege,” he says.
“The privilege of studying a work like this and spending time with it are why one chooses to be a musician in the first place.”
On the Bill: Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. 7 p.m. Saturday, April 23, Macky Auditorium, 1595 Pleasant St., Boulder. (Preceded by pre-performance discussion, 6 p.m.) 2 p.m. Sunday, April 24, Central Presbyterian Church, 1660 Sherman St., Denver. Tickets: 303-449-1343 or boulderphil.org.