Tuesday, October 16, 2012

St. Matthew Passion

Last Thurs evening we went to the first concert of our subscription to the Kibbutz Orchestra that performs at the Netanya Cultural Center (Hechal Hatarbut) and elsewhere in Israel.  I was surprised that the first performance was Johan Sebastian Bach's St. Matthew Passion.  Why was I surprised, because one does not often expect to hear Christian liturgical music in Israel.  For about ten years we attended the monthly concerts of the Herzliya Chamber Orchestra (that has now been disbanded because of the retirment of its founder Harvey Bordowitz) and I think I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of Christian liturgical performances we heard there.  There is such a vast repertoire of music available, why perform such a piece in Israel?  There can be only two reasons, first is that it is a work of musical genius and deserves to be performed and second that there was a visiting choir from Potsdam, Germany, and this piece was their particular preferance.  I should point out that there are annual performances of such Christian liturgical music at the festival at Abu Ghosh, a Christian Arab village outside Jerusalem, that attracts a largely Jewish audience. 
Let me clarify, I don't agree with musical censorship in general, although I have no fondness for the works of Wagner or overtly Christian music.  I prefer more modern classical music, the English masters (Elgar, Delius), French (Debussy, Ravel), Russian (Shostakovitch, Prokofiev) and others (Bartok, Smetana).  Of course, I love Mozart and Beethoven, but there is so much to choose from, why play overtly Christian liturgical music for a Jewish Israeli audience?  It smacks of liberal Jewish triumphilism, we'll show you Germans that we're a lot more tolerant than you were.  I noted that there were very few kippot (yarmulkes) being worn among the audience, that is very few religious (Orthodox) Jews, a smattering.  But, then again this was the Kibbutz Orchestra, the kibbutzim are known for their liberal/leftist bias, perhaps they don't want religious Jews to attend their concerts.
The St. Matthew Passion written by Bach in 1727 describes in musical and choral form the "Passion" of Jesus Christ when he was (supposedly) crucified. As such it cannot avoid being in some ways anti-Semitic, with the appropriate treatments of Caiaphas the High Priest and of course Judas Iscariot.  The words of the Gospel of St Matthew describing the events surrounding the crucifixion are sung in recitative, with Bach's musical and choral interpolations.  I must admit that these thoughts about appropriateness and the dislike of hearing the German language distracted me throughout the performance.
I have heard this work before, most notably when I was a student in Cambridge we went to a performance in the King's College Chapel.  This was a great experience, but what I remember most after so many years is the intense cold in the huge medieval stone building.  We were forewarned and wore our coats and scarves and sat over one of the hot air vents, although it hardly affected the ambient temperature.  I have also heard other Christian liturgical music, such as Mozart's "requiem."  But, I have to admit that I found the Bach, apart from a few highlights, quite tedious.  It is long (3 hours) and the air-conditioning was too cold (most of the men wore short sleeved shirts due to the balmy outside temperature).  Notwithstanding the excellent performances it was a bit of an ordeal and I came out of with a temporary cold.  The next concert is Vivaldi and Mussourgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" adapted for jazz trio and orchestra.  It should be more enjoyable. 


Blogger Tim Smith said...

Dear Jack,

Thank you for your thoughtful post on the St. Matthew Passion. Your response to the concert seems perfectly reasonable to me. If I might speak as a Christian, I've experienced a similar unease at the performance of liturgical Christian music, but my discomfort stemming from its contextualzation in a concert setting. Perhaps you and I would agree that the perfect setting would be that environment for which the work was written.

With all good thoughts
Tim Smith

12:37 AM  

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