Conductor looks into musical mystery

Festival: An enigmatic Bach composition is among the selections to be performed at St. Anne's Church this weekend

Arundel Live

March 16, 2000|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Historic St. Anne's Church in Annapolis will echo with the sounds of great music and more than a little mystery this weekend as the Annapolis Chorale and Chamber Orchestra combine with organist Lawrence Molinaro to present a three-day festival of the musical arts.

At 8 p.m. tomorrow, conductor Ernest Green and his singers will present a choral program consisting of some of the most evocative, profoundly spiritual sacred music ever composed. This "Music of the Millennium" anthology will include heavenly Renaissance motets by Lassus and Palestrina along with portions of Rachmaninoff's Russian Orthodox "Vespers."

Among the more modern works on the program are Franz Biebl's goose-bumpy "Ave Maria," John Tavener's "Song for Athene" and Henryk Gorecki's rapt, mantra-like "Totus Tuus."

Part Two of this special weekend will occur at 3 p.m. Saturday when Molinaro will lecture on J. S. Bach's compositional style for the organ, and on Baroque organ music in general.

Molinaro will follow up his lecture at 3 p.m. Sunday with the latest installment in his recital series traversing the complete organ works of Bach. This time, he will play the Prelude and Fugue in E minor, the Partita on "Sei gegrusset" and selections from the "Great Eighteen Chorales."

The weekend's centerpiece -- and a mysterious one it is, too -- will be a performance of Bach's "Passion According to St. Mark." Indeed, to present this work that might not have ever existed in complete form, Green had to become a musical detective, par excellence.

Appearances are that the ever-industrious composer crafted sometime in 1731 a musical setting of the Passion of Christ as recorded in the Gospel of Mark. J. S.'s son and fellow composer, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, refers to his father's "St. Mark Passion" in his writings. The work was listed in a 19th-century catalog, and there exists a libretto presumed to be the text that Bach used.

Finally, we have preserved for us the opening and closing choruses we know Bach crafted for the piece.

But, alas, the corpus of the Passion has not survived, and its original content is anybody's guess, says Green, who has spliced together several editions to come up with a version he is comfortable with. "If I don't know for a fact that it's Bach, or at least strongly suspect it, I'm not using it," he says.

Green offers a fascinating commentary on Bach's working technique and on the likely shape the work originally took. "Apparently this Passion was a rush job," he says. "Bach wrote it contemporaneously with other works like the `Trauer Ode' [a funeral cantata], and probably took music from one source and just transferred it to the other. So to reconstruct the `St. Mark,' we have to mix and match."

Compounding the conundrum is a version of "Mark's Gospel" by Reinhard Kaiser, a musician who lived slightly before Bach's time. There is, Green says, a copy of Kaiser's "St. Mark" copied out in Bach's own hand.

"I'm not a Bach scholar, and maybe I've read one too many cheap mysteries," Green says, "but here's how I think it all fits together. We have the authentic opening and closing. We have several wonderful arias that Bach used elsewhere, but which fit perfectly with his `St. Mark's' libretto. And we have Kaiser's recitatives set in Bach's own writing, with no real evidence that J. S. ever created a full set of his own. I think he just borrowed Kaiser's."

Out of such sleuthing comes Saturday night's realization of this work, which will be performed in tandem with Bach's greatest motet, "Jesu, meine Freude."

"Whatever the truth is, I've come to see Bach in a different way," Green says. "This was no ivory tower guy. In this music, you can really picture him rolling up his sleeves and putting it all together.

Admission to Saturday's lecture and Sunday's recital is free. Tickets for Friday's "Music of the Millennium" and Saturday's "Passion According to St. Mark" are $20. Information: 410-263-1906.

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