SSO takes on daunting choral work

March 26, 1995|By Karin Remesch | Karin Remesch,Contributing Writer

When Sheldon Bair picks up his baton this afternoon to direct the Susquehanna Symphony in Bach's "St. John Passion," he and the orchestra face their greatest challenge.

It will be the most satisfactory work he's performed with the Susquehanna Symphony Orchestra (SSO), says the 40-year-old director.

And it will be a homecoming for baritone John Kramar, who finished a three-month nationwide tour with the New York Arts Ensemble in time to sing the role of Jesus in today's performance.

It's not often that the 1981 Bel Air High School graduate gets to perform before a hometown audience that includes his parents, brother and sister-in-law.

The symphony orchestra also will be joined by the 52-member Penn State University Concert Choir.

"This is definitely the SSO's biggest undertaking ever," Mr. Bair says. "Bach is brilliant, his music is really great art, but it can also be very difficult technically and emotionally."

The baroque masterpiece is Johann Sebastian Bach's interpretation of the crucifixion described in the Gospel of St. John.

"The story is told in extended recitatives by Evangelist John and Jesus and later by Pontius Pilate," Mr. Bair explains.

Written in 1723, the 2 1/2 -hour large-scale work requires an orchestra, six soloists and a chorus.

Only about half of the community orchestra's 75 members will perform in today's concert.

"The work is not bombastic," Mr. Bair says. "There's no percussion, no brass. Only strings, flute, oboe, English horn and prominent woodwinds."

The orchestra will accompany vocalists whose list of credentials include singing at the Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall in New York and at the Stuttgart Opera in Germany.

Mr. Kramar, who loves singing Bach, will be performing the role of Jesus in "St. John Passion" for the first time today. He's glad that it will be before a hometown audience.

"It's always nice to come home," says Mr. Kramar during a telephone interview while on tour last week in California. "But, I am a little nervous singing in front of family and friends, especially the role of Jesus."

L And he acknowledges that the role will be quite challenging.

Since the work will be sung in German, Mr. Kramar says he has to pay special attention to displaying emotion.

"By watching my emotions I want the audience to be able to understand what I'm singing without having to refer to the translation," he says. "That will be difficult, because by this time in the story Christ is passive. . . . He has resigned himself to his fate and just stands on the sideline."

Mr. Kramar hopes to be able to portray Jesus as calm and strong, yet vulnerable.

"I have to find the right contrast between his strength and his vulnerability," he says. "I hope it works, especially since I don't have such visual aids to fall back on as long hair and a beard. . . . Most singers will let their hair grow for this role, but I couldn't do that while on tour."

Other soloists in today's performance include Richard Kennedy, a tenor, who will be Evangelist John, a role he recently performed with the Penn State Concert Choir.

Baritone David Orcutt, who last appeared with the SSO as a soloist in 1993's "Mystical Melodies" concert, will portray Pontius Pilate.

Also featured will be alto Tammy Hensrud of Darlington, who has sung with the Metropolitan Opera; Carolyn Black, a soprano; and lyric tenor Blaine Hendsbee.

"The most difficult thing is to make this piece work from the

beginning to end . . . to make it seem as one piece," Mr. Bair says.

St. John's immense score is made up of 68 separate pieces of varying length and, except for a few chorals and short choruses, none repeats, Mr. Bair says.

"Each piece is one musical prayer after the other," says principal bassoonist Judy Brand, a Joppatowne resident who has been a member of the community orchestra for 15 years.

"There are lots of notes and there is much movement along the musical lines, which doesn't give the musician much time to rest. Some of the notes are simple, some very complicated, but the way the harmonies are put together are the mark of a genius," Mrs. Brand adds.

Mrs. Brand says she is glad that Mr. Bair chose Bach's work for today's concert.

"It is grand, a masterpiece and it's surprising what it has done for the orchestra as a group -- it has touched our hearts and souls and has been a growth experience not only in our music, but also in our personal lives," Mrs. Brand says.

"Sheldon chooses his music with care. He is well aware that he has to meet the needs of the players, his audience, and his own soul," she says.

Mr. Bair, who teaches orchestra at C. Milton Wright High School, founded the Susquehanna Symphony in 1976 when he started teaching in Bel Air.

From its initial 50 members, the orchestra has grown to 75 musicians, ranging in age from high school students to senior citizens who play with varying degrees of proficiency.

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