Baroque’n hearts

University ensembles, in collaboration with visiting music students and faculty from Germany, will perform Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” this weekend.

Musicians rehearse Bachs St. Matthew Passion on Tuesday evening at Ted Mann Concert Hall. The performance is a collaboration between the Universitys School of Music and student and faculty from Hochschule fur Musik in Detmold, Germany.

Sam Harper

Musicians rehearse Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” on Tuesday evening at Ted Mann Concert Hall. The performance is a collaboration between the University’s School of Music and student and faculty from Hochschule fur Musik in Detmold, Germany.

by Danylo Loutchko

With epically staged musical performances and five-hour-long services, going to church in the 1700s was a much more dramatic excursion than it is today. 
Vestiges of these grand services can be heard today in concert halls around the world, and Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” is a classic example of religious baroque music. 
In collaboration with the Hochschule fur Musik in Detmold, Germany, the University Singers and the University Symphony Orchestra will perform Bach’s piece in Ted Mann Concert Hall on Friday and Saturday
“It’s the passion of Christ. It’s the story that every Christian knows,” Mark Russell Smith said, conductor of the orchestra and director of orchestral studies in the School of Music. “But it’s also how Bach reacts to it and how we as human beings react to it that makes it so rich. It’s a masterpiece of musical architecture and musical drama.”
German students will perform with the University musicians, and afterward some U.S. students and faculty will travel to Germany to learn more about and perform Bach’s piece. 
This marks the second collaboration with the Hochschule, the first being a set of performances of Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem” in 2012. The project turned out favorably, and both schools decided to work on the “St. Matthew Passion” as a follow-up. 
In addition to being an international collaboration, Smith led a semester-long seminar studying Bach’s “Passion” last fall. 
“There aren’t a lot of pieces that are broad-shouldered enough to get treatment like this,” Smith said. “There’s just so much to it: the drama, the history, the liturgy, the musicology. So to do a piece like this and to do it justice, it’s really important that you have time and that you really study on a profound level.”
One of the essential aspects of this project is students learning not only how to play Bach’s music but also how to conduct it. Baroque music such as Bach’s has been relegated primarily to specialists, so students don’t often get opportunities to conduct.
“This piece has pretty much everything a conductor needs to know,” said Ernesto Estigarribia, a violist and graduate-level conducting student. “We learned how to put this immense work together. It’s very valuable to be exposed to this type of music, to learn the proper style and to be able to become multifunctional in terms of our skills in performance. You don’t get that experience in many schools.”
In addition to the orchestra, the “St. Matthew Passion” has a double chorus, which in this production will be half American students and half German students. Kathy Romey, Director of Choral Activities at the School of Music, will conduct the choruses. 
The piece is sung entirely in German, and there will be English surtitles. There will also be projection images to underscore the music. David Walsh, the director of opera theatre in the School of Music, created and directed the scenic design. 
While more of a religious oratorio than an opera, “St. Matthew Passion” is dramatic enough to merit theatrical elements, such as set pieces like a 12-foot cross.
“The music is dramatic, so all I’m trying to do is support that with whatever we’re trying to do physically or visually on the stage,” Walsh said. “The piece unfolds in a series of tableaus in which the chorus and the principles both portray the story and also comment on it, so they’re both in and outside the piece. [It was important] that we somehow mirror that process in what we’re doing on stage.”
Though the piece is a classical music marathon of three hours Mark Russell Smith doesn’t want audiences, especially those who aren’t very familiar with classical music, to be daunted. 
“I absolutely believe you don’t have to have any experience with classical music to understand it,” Smith said. “There’s so much that you will inherently understand. … We need beauty in the world, but we also need things that help us reflect on the humanity of all of us. This is what good art does — it helps us reflect and digest who we are.”
Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion”
Where Ted Mann Concert Hall, 2128 S. Fourth St., Minneapolis
When 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Cost $11 University students, $21–35 general public