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Preview: Bach’s St. John Passion/Chicago Symphony Orchestra

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When he died suddenly of a heart attack while on vacation in early September, 1997, Sir Georg Solti had a score to Bach’s “St. John Passion” at his bedside. The 84-year-old music director emeritus of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was scheduled to conduct the piece for the first time ever in Europe and had spoken openly of his hope to subsequently do it with “his orchestra” here in Chicago. While the CSO had performed the “St. Matthew Passion” under Solti on three occasions during his long music directorship—including making a Grammy Award-winning recording of the work—neither Solti nor the CSO ever got around to the “St. John Passion.”  Until now. This week marks the first-ever CSO performances of the “St. John Passion,” at long last.

Johann Sebastian Bach is attributed with writing five Passions to correspond to his five annual sets of church cantatas.  Of these, two have been entirely lost, and the “St. Luke Passion” bearing Bach’s name is the work of a Bach student or minor contemporary. This leaves only the “St. John Passion” and the “St. Matthew Passion,” two of the supreme glories of Western music.

The tradition of reciting the various gospel accounts of Christ’s passion and death during Holy Week goes back to the fourth century, and by the thirteenth century, this was done in a chant-like style that gradually became more elaborate and reflective of the musical styles of the day, culminating in the magnificent eighteenth-century passions of Bach.

It is the role of the narrator Evangelist that has the most singing in the “St. John Passion” and German tenor Tilman Lichdi has been engaged as the aural storyteller while Nicholas Phan will sing the tenor arias. The most luxurious casting, however, is superstar countertenor David Daniels to sing the heartbreaking alto arias; other soloists include Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin and bass-baritone Neil Davies as Jesus and bass-baritone Nathan Berg for the bass arias. Canadian conductor and early music specialist Bernard Labadie, who founded and directs Les Violons du Roy and La Chapelle de Québec, will conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. (Dennis Polkow)

March 12-14, Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan, (312)294-3000.

3 Responses to “Preview: Bach’s St. John Passion/Chicago Symphony Orchestra”

  1. hornofplenty Says:

    I’m sure the CSO has performed the St. John Passion before, because I heard it–in 2001 with Peter Schreier (also singing the evangelist). And I believe in the ’60s under Martinon. Looking forward to it again!

  2. nicola024 Says:

    yep, I heard them do it in 2001 as well – and amazing to see/hear Schreier as conductor and Evangelist. but Solti and the band didn’t win a Grammy for the Saint Matthew; they won it for the B minor mass.

  3. Dennis Polkow Says:

    You are correct on both counts: while Solti died before he could ever conduct the St. John Passion here or anywhere else, the CSO did get around to it four years later as you rightly recall; tenor Peter Schreier sang the role of the Evangelist and conducted with Camilla Nylund, Annette Markert, Marcus Ullmann, Jörg Hempel and Stephan Loges as soloists in June, 2001. And then-CSO music director Jean Martinon indeed led the first-ever full CSO performances (soprano Uta Graf performed excerpts with Rafael Kubelik back in 1952) in April, 1966 with Judith Raskin, Maureen Forrester, Ernst Haefliger, John Boyden, and Kenneth Smith. Thanks for the correction and apologies for the error.

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