Thoughts on Singing Bach

I was introduced to early choral music as a member of the Choir School at St. Peter’s while growing up in the Charlotte area. From my early teens, I had the music of Byrd, Taverner, and Schütz running through my head. While I sang some of Bach's music as a teenager as well, my first truly meaningful experience with his repertoire was as a master's student at Clare College, Cambridge.

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Timothy Brown, the Emeritus Director of Music, took a group of us on a tour of Israel during our Easter break in 2012, where we performed Bach’s St Matthew Passion. I had been on choir tours before, but this was an entirely new experience, where night after night I discovered something new and thrilling intricately woven into the texture. Some of my fellow tour-mates and I listened to recordings of it over and over for weeks, arguing about whose interpretation was the most exciting, Herreweghe’s or Butt’s.

One of my master's examinations covered the lengthy debate over how many singers "should" constitute the chorus for Bach's cantatas and passions, and I remember being transfixed by the levels of detective work, scholarship, and passion for the repertoire that spurred such a debate. Obviously, each singer, player, and director is empowered to make interpretative choices, as we can never know exactly what Bach might have intended or desired for his performances, had he had access to unlimited resources.

Although I have sung in numerous performances of Bach's cantatas and passions in the US and the UK, I have never before had the opportunity to participate in a staged or semi-staged production of one of his works. My current studies in preparation for a doctorate in historical performance practice at Case Western Reserve University have included classes in Baroque dance. What I’ve gleaned from my instructor, Julie Andrijeski, has been helpful when working on music, particularly when deciding upon tempi. In preparing my arias for this upcoming performance with conductor David Tang and Baroque dancer/stage director Paige Whitley-Bauguess, I have tried to consider corresponding dance steps and their feasibility at various tempi. 

Music is an incredibly collaborative art, and it will be a joy experiencing how the added dimensions of dance and theater complement the power and intricacy of Bach’s St. John Passion.
By Margaret Carpenter Haigh, Soprano