BRATTLEBORO—As she prepares for her performances of Bob Chilcott’s St. John Passion, Susan Dedell has had misgivings about whether she should even be presenting the piece in the first place.
Her concerns are not with Chilcott’s music, which she thinks “glorious,” but with the ecclesiastical text itself.
“I have conflicting emotions about the passion narrative by St. John,” Dedell says. “The text was written four centuries after the death of Christ, and has a different flow than the other gospels. Because of the way it was written, historically St. John’s Passion has been used for anti-Semitic purposes.”
On Sunday, April 14, at 4 p.m., at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Winged Productions, of which Dedell, with her husband Paul Dedell, is the founder and co-director, will present this hour-long work, which combines 13th- and 17th-century English poetry alongside the sung narration of the passion story according to John.
Susan Dedell leads a group of experienced singers and soloists, with guest cellist Judith Serkin.
The role of Evangelist is taken by the tenor soloist, Peter Shea. The role of Jesus will be sung by bass Charles Mays Jr., and Pilate by tenor Christopher Wesoloski. Margery McCrum is the soprano soloist.
The chorus of 30 completes the work, “singing choruses that act as emotional response, as well as five simple original hymns, functioning exactly in the same way as the chorales in the Bach Passions,” Dedell writes in a press release.
The performance is free, but Dedell says donations to benefit Groundworks Collaborative will be gratefully received.
Whatever her misgivings about its source material, Dedell is thrilled to be able to bring this special work to Southern Vermont.
“Unlike the other passions, John’s puts the blame for Jesus’s crucifixion on the Jewish people rather than the Roman government,” Dedell says. “This text has been used for anti-Semitic justification throughout history such as the Inquisition.”
With all its baggage, Dedell found herself wondering if this story should be done at all. Even in Bach’s classic setting, she believes remnants of its anti-Semitism remain (“It’s more in the language, rather than the story itself,” she explains).
Ultimately, Dedell decided it was important to explore rather than avoid the anti-Semitism in this passion. She clearly loves the gospels.
“As a person interested in the art and power of narration, these are stories that have moved people for many years,” Dedell says. “People keep coming back to them over and over, seeing in them new messages.”
Even so, Dedell feels that it is important to acknowledge the role of anti-Semitism in St. John’s text.
“John’s Pilate is almost sympathetic, unlike the historic person who was something of an autocrat,” Dedell says. “Bach does some interesting things in his Passion to wrestle with the anti-Semitism. In his reflective chorales, he emphasizes that the guilt lies with neither the Jewish people nor the Roman government, but in each individual’s heart.”
While J.S. Bach’s version of St. John’s Passion may be more famous, Dedell believes that Chilcott’s mighty setting of words from St. John’s Gospel is a dramatic, yet optimistic, re-telling of the Passiontide story.
There is a difference in the very text each composer uses. Bach took his translation of St. John’s Passion from the German Lutheran Bible, whereas Chilcott uses the classic St. James Bible in English.
‘I want to connect with people’
Chilcott’s St. John Passion, released in 2013, further confirms his status as one of the world’s most popular active choral composers.
“I want to connect with people,” observes Chilcott. “This is the world of music-making I’ve always wanted to inhabit. It is the greatest thing to be able to engage an audience in music and words, to give them a space for reflection. Many of us, myself included, struggle with thoughts about faith and belief, which is why I think a lot about the role music might play in one’s personal journey.”
“For me, that kind of communication is what it is all about,” says Dedell, who admits to having had a “musical crush” on Bob Chilcott ever since she did performances of his Salisbury Vespers with the Brattleboro Concert Choir a few years back.
Chilcott’s St. John Passion promotes the power of love, as the composer contrasts the forces of loving and fearful action. Chilcott explores this by contrasting the narrative with selected texts, mostly from the 17th century poetry in the school of John Dunne, which emphasize the mystical nature of the story.
“Chilcott’s music is so heart-meltingly beautiful, it opens a window of the redemptive in the passion,” says Dedell.
Dedell is delighted with her singers for this performance, whom she chose carefully. Virtually the entire cast consists of local artists.
As with Bach’s great Passion settings, the role of the Evangelist is taken by the tenor soloist.
“Peter Shea is the best narrative singer I know,” Dedell says. “Because the Evangelist role essentially tells the entire story, the singer who does this must have not only a beautiful voice, but an intelligent, clear storytelling ability. Peter is brilliant in this capacity — I have always loved how he brings words to life.
“I am so grateful that Charles Mays Jr. is coming in to do the role of Jesus,” Dedell continues. “Not only do I adore him personally, but I know his grasp of this part is going to be profound. It also connects a few dots for both of us, since I first met him when he sang the role of Jesus in a New England Bach Festival St. Matthew performance several years back.”
Complexity in focus
Dedell feels that Pilate is a complex role. “I know that Christopher Wesoloski will bring the emotional insight that is needed for this part,” she says. “Pilate is a strange character in many ways, and I’m interested in trying to bring this complexity into musical focus.”
Although the soprano soloist is not a character per se, much like in Bach’s passions, she reflects on the main narrative text. “Margery McCrum just glows on these pieces,” observes Dedell. “It is as if they were written just for her — both tender, yet soaring.”
Dedell, who will be conducting the work from the piano, notes that although this piece is being performed on Palm Sunday only a few days before Good Friday, she doesn’t think the date is particularly relevant to her putting on the work.
Perhaps because of her misgivings about St. John’s Passion, she thought it important that Chilcott’s work should be performed for free.
“I did not want to make any money from this one,” Dedell says.