The rehearsal hall in the basement of the music building at St. Catherine University in St. Paul isn’t a mid-18th century cathedral in Leipzig, Germany. But it is where “St. John Passion,” a jewel in Johann Sebastian Bach’s baroque musical crown, is coming to life.
Patricia Connors, the chair of St. Kate’s music and theater department, is preparing the St. Catherine Choral Society to perform Bach’s oratorio 7:30 p.m. April 30 at St. Olaf in Minneapolis.
The “St. John Passion” is reputed to be one of Bach’s most complex compositions. It was originally performed in 1724 when Bach was the director of choir and music in Leipzig, Germany. Originally composed with German text, the baroque work draws on the Passion narrative in St. John’s Gospel.
The St. Kate’s choir is using a late 20th-century English translation of Bach’s work. While the piece has drawn controversy in the past because of its texts’ portrayal of Jews, Connors has adjusted some of the language to be less formal and more inclusive. And, to compensate for Bach’s spare composer’s interpretation marks, she is exercising her conductor’s prerogative to control the tempos and dynamics. This is especially necessary in places where the original German language would have done the trick, she said.
If you goSt. Catherine Choral Society’s performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. John Passion”
- 7:30 p.m. April 30
- St. Olaf, 215 S. Eighth St., Minneapolis
- General admission: $15; students, St. Kate’s alumni and seniors: $10; children 12 and under: free
A parishioner of Holy Spirit in St. Paul, Connors noted that if Bach were alive today, he would make the “St. John Passion” accessible to his performers and his audience.
“Bach did rewrite over and over,” Connors said. “He would make changes in the movement, and then he would come back years later and [recover] the first version of the movement. He was a practical musician. He wrote this stuff for his choir to sing in church on Sunday.”
Connors, 62, founded the Choral Society 23 years ago as a mixed choir composed of St. Kate’s students, and men and women from the community. At one point during a recent rehearsal, Connors unraveled a four-part, heavily ornamented section that could be compared to an industrial-strength round.
First, sopranos and basses bantered, then tenors and altos took their turn as the conductor refined the pace and tuned everyone’s ear to the emotions evoked by the text. Finally, the whole choir rewove the tonal tapestry to create a rich and challenging combination of sound and passion.
Scholarship is at the root of how Connors handles the St. Catherine Choral Society. Students earn credits for the semester’s work. The community singers pay a fee to cover the cost of the music. Rehearsal attendance is mandatory.
The singers perform major choral programs in the fall and spring, and they are instructed in music history, composition technique and interpretation, as well as vocal discipline. Connors carefully selects works that challenge the six-dozen singers without going beyond their abilities.
For more information about performances, visit St. Kate’s Music & Theater.