Speeding Across Bridges With Bach's St. John PassionWednesday, March 23, 2011
Watching violinist Yehudi Menuhin attempt to explain the role of punk music (I believe the Dead Kennedys were playing behind) was for me an indelible moment in Menuhin’s mini series (1987) The Music of Man. The urbane man was visibly in discomfort,
To this day there is a big divide between popular music and the “serious” classical genre. If anything this blog repeats the theme of yesterday’s on the role of culture and how we perceive social classes.
I have been on the floor (low frequency vibration!) up front at the Commodore in Vancouver listening to (with lots of ear protection) the Dead Kennedys or my local favourites, DOA, The Subhumans and Art Bergmann. Somehow this loud music and the sound of the electric (metal) guitars transport me to an era embossed in my genes, of caves, fires, wild animals and my early ancestors in animal skins. The music is primal. It is close to the same feeling I had, as an adult, when I first stood in front of an ocean. Was that walking fish also embossed in my DNA?
I no longer need to search my early history or the participation of my ancestors and how it all led me to be here now writing this. The thrill of punk is gone. None of the contemporary punk bands seem to touch the authenticity of those first ones. I am more touched by the music of the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment. While I enjoy the often played music of the 19th century (it seems so familiar, so comforting, sort of like the 60s jazz of Gerry Mulligan ) it is the music that preceded it (and followed it as is the music of the 20th). Baroque and in particular the early Baroque music of the 17th is what excites me now. Every time I attend a concert in Vancouver I am thrilled as more often than not, these days, the composers are unknown to me and I have never heard the music before. I feel like I am a part of the audience at a premiere. This also applies to works that are not often performed.
Many might have heard at least one live version of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, but what of his St. John Passion?
It was last Monday that my friend Graham Walker and I sat on the fourth row at the Chan Centre to watch an electrifying performance of this work (Bach was younger and far more adventurous than when he composed his St. Matthew Passion). José Verstappen and his Early Music Vancouver had assembled a smallish orchestra (the Portland Baroque) and two choirs (adding up to 12 singers) Capella Romana and Les Voix Baroques. The ensemble was directed by the legendary violinist (in our Baroque lover’s circle) Monica Huggett (whose strong forearms do not belie her power of performance) and included the tenor from Salisbury, Charles Daniel who played (very well indeed) and sang the lines of the evangelist John. The choir included the Vancouver baritone Tyler Duncan (he played Pontius Pilate) and the Canadian countertenor Matthew White.
White stood surrounded by five singing women, but his clear voice always seemed to penetrate from the group and stand out.
The performance was magic and Charles Daniels was what I would call a dramatic tenor. His acting and voice were superb. But it was Matthew White who had the best line where he describes the last moments of Christ on the cross with the words, “it is finished”. He looked at us all with his glasses, and the expression on his face carried such pathos and turmoil that I was almost overcome with tears.
But there was something else that I noticed. I have often written here of my love of driving (as fast as the law permits) on freeways at night (and in particular in the covered freeway thoroughfare in Seattle) while listening to (very loud) what I call bridge-driving music like the Clash’s London Calling or the Oscar Peterson Trio with Milt Jackson version of Nat Adderley’s Work Song.
I must add here that Bach’s Coros from his St. John Passion, as directed by Monica Huggett (loud and fast) also qualify and this has given me a further insight into why I like that wonderful music of the 17th and 18th century. I am sure that in spite of the pain behind his eyes, Menuhin must have known this, too.