J.S. Bach's St. John Passion is a work any group dedicating itself to the works of the composer would be eager to perform. But Kentucky Bach Choir director Marlon Hurst says several things had to come together for his group to perform it this weekend.
"This is a work of such magnitude, it is rarely performed," Hurst says. "But the parts fell into place this year for us to do it."
Those parts included the availability of a professional tenor for the demanding role of the evangelist in the work, the booking of a second performance to make it financially feasible and the availability of ideal dates.
"St. John makes programmatic sense this time of year," Hurst says of the oratorio, which will be performed Friday night at First Presbyterian Church in Lexington and Saturday at the University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg.
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It works out as a sort of prelude to Holy Week, the time bookended by Palm Sunday this weekend and Easter, April 5, when Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The work was first performed on Good Friday, when Christians observe the crucifixion of Christ, in 1724 at St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig, Germany, where Bach was the director of music. It follows the story of Jesus Christ's arrest, crucifixion and aftermath.
The week of Easter might seem even more ideal for a performance, but Hurst, the music director at First Presbyterian, said he and other participants are involved in their own church programs that week.
St. John Passion is one of several Easter events presented by local arts groups in the coming days. Everett McCorvey's Global Creative Connections is presenting the fourth annual performance of Angela Rice's Thy Will Be Done, and Bluegrass Opera is presenting the second year of company director Lorne Dechtenberg's King of Glory.
The St. John Passion presents a particular challenge to the choir because it "has to alternate between several different roles and has massive opening and closing choruses," Hurst says.
Another challenge is the role of the evangelist, a massive tenor part Hurst that says is crucial for a successful performance. Choir member Rick Dirksen had a connection to tenor Robert Petillo, a Washington, D.C.-based tenor who has sung the role numerous times and was available for the Bach Choir performances.
Hurst also says that last year's winner of the Bach Choir's annual vocal competition, Marie-France Duclos, auditioned with a piece from the Passion and will be the soprano soloist. Other soloists include previous competition winner Conor Angell as Jesus and local bass Christopher Baker as Pilate.
The work also features numerous baroque-era instruments such as the oboe d'amore that had to be rented and musicians had to be engaged to play, adding to the cost of the performance. Hurst says being contracted and paid to perform in Williamsburg on the Fine Arts Association of Southeastern Kentucky's concert series helped make all of that feasible, because the Bach Choir organization was getting money up front for that performance.
"I grew up in that part of the commonwealth, and my mother had tickets to that series for years," Hurst says. "It's a real privilege to be on that series."
Then there was one last element the Bach Choir had no control over: The University of Kentucky men's basketball team's journey in the NCAA Tournament. Fortunately, for the Lexington performance, the Cats are on a Thursday and Saturday schedule (this article went to press before Thursday night's Sweet 16 game).
"I think for people who really love this work, they would come out regardless," Hurst says. "But it is nice that the schedule worked out that way."