Programme Notes - Musical Director (St Matthew Passion)

Posted: 25th February 2019

For the concert on 9 March 2019:

It is a privilege to welcome you to our performance of J.S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion this evening and it is particularly special to be finally performing this great work given the unexpected weather that forced us to cancel this event in March 2018. It has felt like a long journey to get to this point and we are extremely grateful for your support.

I was passionate when undertaking this exciting challenge that we must aim to communicate the emotion and context of this incredible work of art. To this end, I have been encouraging the choir to memorise sections of the music that they are comfortable with in order to better communicate the wide range of feeling present in the St Matthew Passion – be it anger or sorrow, hope or love, the St Matthew Passion has it all, taking us on an emotional rollercoaster in the context of Jesus’ final days leading up to his crucifixion.

Any performance of a Bach passion is inextricably linked with the liturgy of Good Friday and the striking theatre of the ‘Service of the Lord’s Passion’. There has often been a suggestion among commentators that J.S. Bach was a composer for the church whilst Handel preferred the theatre. Whilst this may have some truth to it, it certainly does not infer that Bach’s works are devoid of drama and narrative – quite the opposite! Anyone who has experienced the drama of a St Matthew Passion on Good Friday would surely agree. In fact, in my opinion, J.S. Bach has set Picander’s stunning libretto in a way which outdoes most Baroque opera in its sheer variety of form, characterisation and storytelling.

As a choral scholar at Exeter Cathedral, I vividly remember my first Good Friday – perhaps more so than my first Christmas. The striking image of the Canons lying face down on the ground at the altar was deeply moving. The congregation are then invited to come up and pay their own respects at the cross for the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The choir always sang The Reproaches by John Sanders whilst this occurred, and this was probably the first time I understood the immense synergy between Liturgy and Music. Whilst The Reproaches are a vivid accompaniment to the adoration of the cross, the reciting of the Lord’s Passion precedes this, and it is often not practical to perform a Bach passion in its entirety as it is around three hours in length with no cuts. Tonight, we present an abridged version but one which hopefully maintains the integrity of the narrative.

One of the mission statements of the Exeter Bach Society constitution is to further the education of J.S. Bach and his contemporaries among the community and it is in this light that we are delighted to welcome the choir of St. Peter’s School, Lympstone to sing the Ripieno chorus and several other selected movements. Engaging young people with classical music is a mission close to my heart and I’m very grateful to Chris Hoban (Director of Music) for finding time in their busy schedule. In addition, it has been great to collaborate with Exeter Chorale and their Musical Director – Simon Dunbavand. After the cancellation of last year’s event due to snow, I needed to replace one of the choirs who subsequently pulled out and I couldn’t have asked for a more professional and dedicated group of amateur singers to take on the challenge. They have been a pleasure to work with and I hope they have enjoyed the experience.

I believe that any concert performance of the St Matthew Passion should engage the audience with the narrative and transport them to the liturgy of Good Friday irrespective of whether you have experienced this service yourself. This should be true regardless of your beliefs; we can all relate to sacrificing the needs of ourselves to help others and the importance of the forgiveness of sins. As such, we have decided to sing the chorales in English to enhance audience engagement.

I am extremely grateful to all the soloists and the Exeter Bach Society Orchestra for their time and commitment and I would particularly like to thank the committee for their help in the preparation of this concert. Please refrain from applause at the end of the first half and please allow a moment of reflection at the end of the concert before applauding. I look forward to meeting you following the performance.

Musical Director

Jonathan Lucas Wood