Monday, 2 April 2012

Performing Bach's St John Passion: a transformative experience

You might be aware, if you've followed my twitter posts over the past 2 months or so, that I've been rehearsing with the Melbourne Bach Choir in the lead up to their first performance of Bach's St John Passion.

It took a lot of hard work, but it was the sort of hard work that's really enjoyable, and it all culminated in two performances at St Mary Star of the Sea in West Melbourne last week. Due to some unfortunate incidents, the first performance, on Friday night, was a bit of a let-down, but the performance on Sunday (yesterday) went beautifully.

We performed the Passion in English, and I'm glad we did, although I prefer the German because it's less clumsy. Singing in English made it possible for me - and hopefully everyone else, including the audience - to immediately grasp the drama and tragedy of the work. Rehearsing my part at home by singing along with a recording, I was able to understand the story and how the music relates to that, and the result was often very moving...although I have to admit, by the time I learnt the music, I'd gone over it so many times it had kind of lost its emotional hold on me!

The St John Passion is the most technically difficult thing I have ever sung. I sang parts of Bach's Christmas Oratorio with another choir last year, but much as I loved it, it just doesn't compare with the insane difficulty of the choruses in the St John Passion. It's been amazing singing such beautiful music in such a great choir, and especially under the direction of the wonderful Rick Prahkoff. It's also been enriching in several different ways, as I discovered today while playing the piano.

I haven't really practised the piano 'properly' for about two weeks, as I've been busy 1) rehearsing with the Bach Choir and 2) writing the 3rd movement of my Piano Trio. Today I sat down and played through Bach's Keyboard Partita No. 1 for the first time in two weeks. I made a few discoveries. The first one is a bit irrelevant: my hands appear to have grown substantially - what feels like an octave, and used to be an octave, is now a ninth (I rely a lot on touch memory).

The second discovery is that somehow, singing the St John Passion has completely changed the way I play Bach, in a good way. Not only am I more focused and a lot tighter playing the really technical, fast stuff, but I feel like I have a better understanding of phrasing and expression. A lot of sticky spots in the Partita that have been troubling me for weeks have simply resolved themselves and I no longer have any trouble with them at all.
I also discovered I've got my agility back. I've been doing metronome practise on some of the movements of the Partita to improve my accuracy and muscle memory, and although in the long term metronome practise can be extremely useful, I tend to find I lose all agility and lightness of touch after using the metronome, often for days on end. This isn't a good thing when you're aiming for a similar approach to that of Glenn Gould!

All in all, it's been an incredible experience performing with the Bach Choir, and I'm really looking forward to being involved in their future performances. Thankyou so much to all the other choir members, the orchestra, soloists, and Rick for making it happen!

EDIT: As of October 2012, I have discovered that someone actually videoed the concert and it's on youtube! Here is the link

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