nicholas phan

Oregon Bach Festival review: A St. Mark Passion reborn

Reconstructing a lost Bach masterpiece


Even before the first bars of the Oregon Bach Festival’s production of a new reconstruction of J.S. Bach’s lost St. Mark Passion were played last Wednesday night at Portland’s Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, I wondered two things. After the attempts of the many former St. Marcheologists, what was the point of yet another? And more important, would this “finished product” be a St. Mark Passion that would stand with the already iconic St. John and St. Matthew works of this composer?

Matthew Halls led performances of his reconstruction of Bach's St. Mark Passion. Photo: Jon Christopher Meyers.

Matthew Halls led performances of his reconstruction of Bach’s St. Mark Passion. Photo: Jon Christopher Meyers.

The Process

Since none of Bach’s music for this work now exists, the new artistic director of Oregon Bach Festival, Matthew Halls, and Bach scholar Dominik Sackmann were left to fit music to the surviving texts of Picander (pen name of Christian Henrici). Their solution was to compose brand new music for the recitatives, as Bach would have; to choose arias that were largely from pre-existing cantatas of Bach, such as the Trauerode (Mourning Ode) composed in 1727; and for the chorales, to select among existing models from the large collections published by Barenreiter. The St. Mark, in contrast to Bach’s other extant Passions, has a surfeit of chorales, and many less turbae, or crowd choruses. This is a liability, if one is listening for dramatic movement and appeal. The turbae and recitatives move things forward; the reflective chorales stand still in time.

“Copying” (in music called “parody” when a composer does it himself, or to honor another composer) is certainly not new to the art world. In the visual arts, Elmyr de Hory was a very successful copyist, who forged paintings by Picasso, Matisse and Renoir, and made money doing it. In archeology, there was the Piltdown man. In music, though, there is not much chance of accumulated wealth from this process.

We applaud the purity of scholarship under which this reconstruction was conceived. There is no issue of monetary gain to be realized by the efforts of Messrs. Halls and Sackmann. Their work has come from a genuine love of, and interest in, perpetuating a dream: that the St. Mark story can reappear in a new garb, reborn with a new life that will give meaning to Bach and his passions.

But until and unless Bach’s real manuscripts are found, we will not have his St. Mark. As a renowned Bach scholar once told me, there is no point to looking into a work like the St. Mark, when there is no surviving music.

As admitted in the pre-concert lecture by Prof. Sackmann, and in the program notes, this is the latest of many attempts to reconstruct the St. Mark Passion. Fifty years ago, Diethard Hellmann and Gustav Adolf Theill were among the first advocates of the Passion reconstruction. More recently, Dutch early music pioneer (and former Portland Baroque Orchestra director) Ton Koopman used his own freely composed recitatives and his favorite works by Bach. Even Carl Orff got into the act in 1937, with a wild attempt at setting the St. Mark texts.


Nicholas Phan sings at Chamber Music Northwest.

Nicholas Phan sings at Chamber Music Northwest.


When tenor Nicholas Phan handed the proposed repertoire list for his senior recital to his  college adviser, she was astonished–and appalled–at its length and breadth. “When did you have time to learn all that?” she exclaimed, gazing at the thick sheaf of print outs covering composers from Baroque to contemporary.

“I’ve been in school for four years,” the University of Michigan senior replied. “Those were my assignments. I’m curious about a lot of music.”

In the decade or so since then, Phan has maintained the curiosity and versatility that make him a rarity among today’s top classical singers, most of whom wind up specializing not just in choral or opera or solo recital repertoire, but even in sub-niches within those categories – Wagner or Rossini or Puccini opera roles, for example, historically informed early music, 20th century songs.

Not Phan. “It might sound radical now, but to my mind it’s really conservative,” to sing a wide range of classical music, he told Oregon ArtsWatch. “You look at the really great singers–Jessye Norman, [Dietrich] Fischer-Dieskau, [Thomas] Hampson, Susan Graham, Christa Ludwig –they had these gigantic operatic careers, but art song was also an important part of what they did. Jessye Norman cultivated her artistry by doing these one-person shows. Peter Pears did a Bach Evangelist, Britten’s music, Schubert songs, he’s in ‘Turandot.’ He did everything.”

The reference to Pears, the tenor best known for singing so much of the music written for him by his life partner, Benjamin Britten, is telling. Phan was initially fascinated by England’s greatest 20th century composer, who was born 100 years ago this November, because of his role as a (closeted) gay classical music pioneer.
Tonight, Phan will sing Britten and Pears’ music, along with songs by Felix Mendelssohn and Hugo Wolf, at Chamber Music Northwest. And on Monday and Tuesday, he’ll sing Britten’s 20th century classic, Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings (1943) in another recommended and diverse CMNW concert that includes another great 20th century composer’s masterworks, Gyorgy Ligeti’s 1953 “Six Bagatelles” for wind quintet, American composer Joan Tower’s 2006 “A Little Gift” for flute and clarinet, one of Paul Hindemith’s rare non-tedious works (“A Little Chamber Music” for woodwind quintet, from 1922), and a comfortably commonplace pacifier for timid listeners otherwise inclined to flee the hall in terror at the prospect of encountering so many unfamiliar 20th century sounds, Mozart’s overly familiar serenade “A Little Night Music.”


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