Seraphic Fire set to tackle epic challenge of Bach’s “St. John Passion”

By David Fleshler

Johann Sebastian Bach

For all its monumental musical ambition, grand choruses and dramatic sweep, the St. John Passion of Bach calls for a surprisingly intimate ensemble.

The Miami choir Seraphic Fire will perform the oratorio Friday, Saturday and Sunday in Miami and Fort Lauderdale with 13 chorus members, two soloists and a 12-member orchestra. Artistic director and conductor Patrick Dupré Quigley said this corresponds roughly to the size of the ensemble for which Bach composed it. “It’s perfect Seraphic Fire size,” he said. “We don’t have to expand or contract for this.”

Written for the Good Friday service of St. Nicholas’ Church in Leipzig, the work draws from the Gospel of St. John to tell the story of Christ’s suffering and death, melding both choral splendor, searching musical intimacy and operatic drama for one of the towering works of Western music. The oratorio is full of great moments: the dark, surging opening chorus, the quietly joyful, flute-accompanied soprano aria Ich folge dir gleichfalls, the urgent bass aria Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen, and many others.

Although the Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is performed more frequently, Quigley said he wanted to start with the St. John. “Between the two of them, St. John is the more dramatic work,” he said. “St. Matthew is more meditative, really, whereas in St. John almost the entire second part is just one through-composed dramatic piece. And so I thought it would be better in terms of introducing our audiences to the Bach passions. I think it’s an incredibly exciting work.”

The choir will sing the work in the original German. The program will contain a complete text and translation, but Quigley said those won’t be that necessary for listeners who know the outline of the story.

“You don’t have to speak German to know what’s going on,” he said. “The drama is so palpable in the musical content. [Bach] really was an amazing painter of emotions through notes, and there’s not really any place where it’s more on display than in this piece of music.

Seraphic Fire performs Bach’s St. John Passion 7:30 p.m. Friday and 4 p.m. Sunday at All Saints Episcopal Church, Fort Lauderdale and 8 p.m. Saturday at Trinity Cathedral, Miami.; 305-285-9060.

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Wed Mar 16, 2011
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