Ahead of Palm Sunday’s free stream of Bach’s St John Passion from Saffron Hall, Britten Sinfonia’s CEO & Artistic Director Meurig Bowen reflects on a challenging year and gives you a preview of this unique performance. The stream will be available to watch here from 7pm on Sunday 28 March.
Enforced Separation has been one of the main things we’ll all remember about Covid – and not just the locked-down separation from friends and family. In the world of music-making, social distancing has enforced a more local kind of separation, where instrumentalists and singers have been set apart by two metre measuring sticks and obliged to adjust accordingly (my stage management colleagues at Britten Sinfonia use a trusty decorator’s pole, fearsomely yellow).
In the last few months, orchestral programming has been transformed by such strictures. The grandiose and large-scale has been necessarily ditched in favour of the chamber-scaled and compact.
Some music can only be done one way – composers make it very clear how many performers you need on stage to make it work. But older music, from the 18th century especially, has a built-in flexibility of scale. A long-standing tradition exists for supersized performances of Handel’s Messiah, for example, and yet in more recent decades an equally compelling case has been made for the piece to be performed with relatively small numbers of singers and players.
The same is true with the great choral works of JS Bach. Large choral societies have made these pieces their own over the years, just as the specialist, period performance ensembles have. Britten Sinfonia has performed Bach’s St John Passion a number of times, with quite different numbers of performers on each occasion. As far as I’m concerned, there is no right or wrong; but in a time of Covid restrictions, there is only one way any of us can consider mounting a performance of this seasonal masterwork. Simply in order to fit everyone on stage two metres apart – in our case, at Saffron Hall – the strings section needs to be pared back, and the choir has to be made up of the soloists too. Actually the way, most reckon, Bach would have done it with his (all-male) Leipzig singers.
It is a very special kind of singer who can deliver equally well as a chorister and soloist. Some of our greatest solo singers have little or no experience of choral singing, and their glorious voices would struggle to blend chorally, even if they had early-career experience of singing Bach’s extraordinarily challenging choral parts. Likewise, stepping out from the choral ranks isn’t for everyone – some singers are just better suited, vocally and temperamentally, to the teamwork of choirs. I know that myself. As an occasional singer myself, I seize opportunities to perform Bach and Handel in small choirs, but you’d have to drag me kicking and screaming to the front for solo duties.
Conductor Daniel Hyde and I had many conversations about who to ask for this Holy Week St John Passion performance. In any other year, it would have been inconceivable that we could have booked the people we did at a fortnight’s notice – people of such calibre and baroque specialism would have all been engaged to perform elsewhere a long time before. The same goes for the Britten Sinfonia players. A weirdly (un)fortunate by-product of Covid has been people’s availability for projects at short notice.
The result: a high-class line-up of singers and players that could only have been assembled in this Covid time, a choral sound from only 12 singers that is paradoxically unified and sumptuous, and a collective passion for this music intensified by the fact that Lenten Bach was silenced in 2020, and is so welcome again in 2021 – even behind closed doors.
Meurig Bowen | CEO & Artistic Director, Britten Sinfonia