• Music Director and Conductor Bernard Labadie leads the orchestra called Les Violons du Roy (The King's Violins), plus La Chapelle de Quebec and vocal soloists in Bach's St. John Passion at Carnegie Hall.
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    Music Director and Conductor Bernard Labadie leads the orchestra called Les Violons du Roy (The King's Violins), plus La Chapelle de Quebec and vocal soloists in Bach's St. John Passion at Carnegie Hall.
    Melanie Burford/NPR
  • Conductor Bernard Labadie says Bach's St. John Passion is the boldest experience in terms of dramatic expression in all of Bach's output, "The harmonies are the furthest he's ever gone, and as close as he got to opera."
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    Conductor Bernard Labadie says Bach's St. John Passion is the boldest experience in terms of dramatic expression in all of Bach's output, "The harmonies are the furthest he's ever gone, and as close as he got to opera."
    Melanie Burford/NPR
  • Tenor Ian Bostridge (left) sings the role of the evangelist, a kind of "reporter on the scene" telling the story of Jesus' arrest, trial, and crucifixion. He's joined by Bass-Baritone Neal Davies (center, as Jesus) and Bass-Baritone Hanno Muller-Brachmann.
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    Tenor Ian Bostridge (left) sings the role of the evangelist, a kind of "reporter on the scene" telling the story of Jesus' arrest, trial, and crucifixion. He's joined by Bass-Baritone Neal Davies (center, as Jesus) and Bass-Baritone Hanno Muller-Brachmann.
    Melanie Burford/NPR
  • A member of the chorus, La Chapelle de Quebec looks at the score of Bach's St. John Passion, which he wrote for Good Friday services in Leipzig, in April of 1724.
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    A member of the chorus, La Chapelle de Quebec looks at the score of Bach's St. John Passion, which he wrote for Good Friday services in Leipzig, in April of 1724.
    Melanie Burford/NPR
  • Bass-Baritone Hanno Muller-Brachmann was one of the soloists. The soloists play various characters in the story and sometimes just reflect on events.
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    Bass-Baritone Hanno Muller-Brachmann was one of the soloists. The soloists play various characters in the story and sometimes just reflect on events.
    Melanie Burford/NPR
  • There is evidence that Bach wrote as many as five passion settings. The only two that have survived complete are the more popular St. Matthew Passion and the St. John Passion.
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    There is evidence that Bach wrote as many as five passion settings. The only two that have survived complete are the more popular St. Matthew Passion and the St. John Passion.
    Melanie Burford/NPR
  • In Leipzig, Bach set himself the task to write new music each and every week for all the church festivals. He wanted two complete year-long cycles of such music and the St. John Passion was to be the crowing achievement for his 1724 cycle.
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    In Leipzig, Bach set himself the task to write new music each and every week for all the church festivals. He wanted two complete year-long cycles of such music and the St. John Passion was to be the crowing achievement for his 1724 cycle.
    Melanie Burford/NPR
  • A member of Les Violons du Roy, the orchestra Bernard Labadie founded in 1984.
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    A member of Les Violons du Roy, the orchestra Bernard Labadie founded in 1984.
    Melanie Burford/NPR
  • Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin sang many beautiful Bach moments in the performance, including the aria "Melt my heart, in flodds of tears."
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    Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin sang many beautiful Bach moments in the performance, including the aria "Melt my heart, in flodds of tears."
    Melanie Burford/NPR
  • Music Director and Conductor Bernard Labadie says Bach's music is bold: "With a mixture of 'magma' in the strings. The opening chorus is one of the most electrifying moments in all of 18th century music."
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    Music Director and Conductor Bernard Labadie says Bach's music is bold: "With a mixture of 'magma' in the strings. The opening chorus is one of the most electrifying moments in all of 18th century music."
    Melanie Burford/NPR
  • American tenor Nicholas Phan takes a solo.
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    American tenor Nicholas Phan takes a solo.
    Melanie Burford/NPR
  • The chorus has several jobs, including taking on the role of the crowds. Plus, they sing the chorales which the congregation, in Bach's time, might have joined in on.
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    The chorus has several jobs, including taking on the role of the crowds. Plus, they sing the chorales which the congregation, in Bach's time, might have joined in on.
    Melanie Burford/NPR
  • Conductor Bernard Labadie, the orchestra, chorus and soloists acknowledge the enthusiastic applause for their performance of Bach's St. John Passion.
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    Conductor Bernard Labadie, the orchestra, chorus and soloists acknowledge the enthusiastic applause for their performance of Bach's St. John Passion.
    Melanie Burford/NPR

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Classics in Concert

Bach's 'St. John Passion' At Carnegie HallWQXR-APM

Bach's St. John Passion: Ravishing and Disputed

J.S. Bach's St. Matthew Passion has always gotten more respect than his other telling of the crucifixion story — the St. John Passion. The St. Matthew, with its six-part choir and double orchestra, is grander, about 45 minutes longer and generally more imposing.

But don't underestimate the St. John. Its very compactness gives it a power of its own.

And you can judge for yourself this weekend, as it will be the centerpiece of Les Violons du Roy's Carnegie Hall performance Sunday at 2 p.m. ET, heard live on this page.

"The St. John's text is much more direct and burns like a coal," says Kent Tritle, director of cathedral music and organist at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine an a WQXR host. "The St. Matthew is much more narrative and takes more time to work out."

The St. John has also become a somewhat harder sell in an era sensitive to ethnic characterizations. The work's harping on "the Jews" as the driving force behind the crucifixion of Jesus have led some people to view it as anti-Semitic. Some orchestras have printed disclaimers in their concert programs. A performance today at the Berlin Cathedral is substituting texts by poets as varied as Rumi and Paul Celan, as well as words from the Yom Kippur liturgy, for some of the texts Bach set.

"The gospel of John is problematic because of the burden it places upon the Jewish people for Jesus," Tritle says. "There's a comfort zone issue here."

Scholars and performers have wrestled with the work's message over time. Lately it has been suggested that Bach took the St. John's narration and dialogue almost verbatim from the Gospel of St. John, which grew out of the era in which the book was written — between A.D. 90 and 130. In those days, Christians were trying to ingratiate themselves with their Roman rulers rather than laying the blame for the crucifixion on the Roman Pontius Pilate. Some scholars have also suggested that Bach mollified through his music the anti-Semitic tendencies of the text.

Controversies aside, Tritle says the work is rich in its formal structure, with the Evangelist's telling of Jesus' crucifixion regularly interrupted with timeouts for ruminative arias and reflective chorales. These sweeping choral moments not only portray the crowd — soldiers, priests and populace — but were also the work's most interactive aspect in its day.

"The chorales come at points where the congregation would actually join in singing some affirmation of what has just happened," Tritle explains. "You can imagine that the interaction was rather consistent from beginning to end."

Performers

  • Les Violons du Roy
  • La Chapelle de Québec
    Bernard Labadie, Music Director and Conductor
  • Ian Bostridge, Tenor
  • Neal Davies, Bass-Baritone
  • Karina Gauvin, Soprano
  • Damien Guillon, Countertenor
  • Nicholas Phan, Tenor
  • Hanno Müller-Brachmann, Bass-Baritone
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