I was very young when I first heard about Bach’s St Matthew Passion. My mother had sung it as a teenager in The Hamilton Bach Choir. It was performed in English. She loved this Passion with all her heart and would try to explain to me the meaning of singing in this great work, with double choir, double orchestra, and soloists. She described the story as told by the singers. She spoke particularly of how the choir would become the crowd: the faithful followers or angry mob. I would listen as she talked herself to tears. I’m not sure I understood at that time, but I knew enough to listen. This obviously was special to her.
Skip ahead many years to 1996. I had been singing with the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir for four years. My Mum was bursting with pride that I was a part of this distinguished group. That season, it was announced that Tafelmusik would be presenting the St Matthew Passion. My Mum was ecstatic and could barely contain herself. “I can’t wait for you to sing this work, and I can’t wait to come and hear it!”, she told me. I guess I would have the chance to experience what moved her so many years earlier.
When rehearsals began, I was the young mother of a ten-month old baby. I had many distractions in my head, but set about learning Bach’s work. I was still new at learning baroque phrasing, technique, trills, and tuning. I wasn’t strong with the German language, having only studied it briefly for music exams. I scribbled massive notes in my Passion score. I made a mess of the pages, in fact. These notes, however, would help me remember all the details that I was required to sing. Nuance of text, clarity of diction and tone, and expressive phrasing are the hallmark of this choir, led by the inspiring and meticulous Ivars Taurins.
That year, the choir and orchestra performed the work under the direction of Ivars and Jeanne Lamon. We were a larger choir then of 37 singers, and the setting was Yorkminster Park Baptist Church. We were joined by an impressive list of soloists and the Toronto Children’s Chorus. It was broadcast live on CBC Radio, produced by the late Neil Crory. My Mum attended, of course, and loved every moment. But it was hard for her not to sing along!
Tafelmusik has performed the work on two other occasions since the 1996 performances. It was done with smaller forces in 2002 with 12 solo singers and Andrew Parrott as guest conductor, and then again in 2009 with Montreal’s Les Voix Baroque singing one-on-a-part and directed by Jeanne Lamon. In the latter performances, the soprano in ripieni was sung by three members of the Tafelmusik Choir. I was honoured to sing this part, along with Ariel Harwood-Jones and Tannis Sprott. It was exciting to sing these beautiful chorale lines from the balcony of the Trinity-St. Paul’s Church.
Well, it is now 2019 and I feel blessed to be here with Tafelmusik, singing this glorious work again. Even when a musician is familiar with a work, it still requires a fair amount of practising. This time around, I began rehearsals with a full bout of laryngitis. That is rather scary for a singer. I needed to review my notes somehow, but had no voice. I listened to recordings to get my part back in my head. I attended the first rehearsal, only able to take notes. The only way I could practise at home was by whistling the choruses! One learns a lot about Bach when one has to whistle his music. Not an easy task, but the complexities become quite clear, and the lips quite dry!
I reviewed my markings. Note that when possible, Tafelmusik kindly provides us with our same scores from previous years’ performances. I noticed something. Many of my markings from 1996 are no longer needed. There are elements — from phrasing and pronunciation to tuning and trills — that I have learned to do naturally now over all these years. Some of my former markings were so distracting that I actually had to erase them. I take this to mean that I have made progress as a baroque singer. Of course, new markings have been made!
The choir has been rehearsing each week with Ivars. We also look forward to singing the performances under the baton of Maestro Masaaki Suzuki, with wonderful soloists, a newer vintage of the Toronto Children’s Chorus, and the ever-inspiring Tafelmusik orchestra. There are only three of us in the choir now that sang this Passion back in 1996: Francine Labelle, Peter Mahon, and myself.
My Mum, who introduced me to the work, is now gone. That little baby boy I had, when I last performed it in full, is now a 23-year-old man. But I will sing it again, as if no time has passed. I will think of my Mum particularly during her favourite moments: the haunting opening and closing choruses which begin and end the journey; the beautiful, familiar chorales; the rhythmic melodies of the chanting crowds; the peaceful affirmation “Truly this was the Son of God.” It is intensely moving, whether one is listening to it or performing it, and I suspect this is the case with anyone who has connected with it. I now fully appreciate my Mum’s effusive enthusiasm, and my guess is that I will be describing it all to my son. Bach’s music transcends time, and Tafelmusik has a unique way of keeping it dynamic and new.