When the first notes of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion are played at First Baptist Church in Aiken on March 14, guests will be treated to something pretty special.
It will be the first time anyone will have heard the production by students of The Juilliard School. It is the centerpiece of this year’s Juilliard in Aiken music festival.
It will be performed only two more times when it leaves Aiken – once at Spivey Hall in Atlanta and at Lincoln Center in New York.
“It tells the story of Christ’s final days,” said Janice Jennings, a spokeswoman for Juilliard in Aiken. “It is a biblical subject and it’s about struggle and sacrifice, real life and death issues. From our perspective and from Juilliard’s perspective, this is something that can be meaningful for anyone who hears it.”
Bach wrote The Passion in 1727 to present the Gospel of Matthew in music at Good Friday vesper services. It uses a double choir, a double orchestra and soloists to take the audience through the Last Supper and the betrayal of Jesus, his trial, crucifixion and burial.
Sixty-nine musicians from The Juilliard School and Grammy-nominated The Choir of Trinity Wall Street will perform the piece, along with 19 Aiken youth ages 9-15 who auditioned for the production.
“Those kids are going to be up there on the stage with some of the greatest musicians and the greatest singers in the world,” Jennings said.
The choirs will be accompanied by The Triptych Percussion Ensemble and Juilliard’s historical instrument ensemble, Juilliard415. The historical instruments that will be used are tuned to a different pitch than modern instruments, which changes the sound of the instruments and the music, Jennings said.
“It’s the way it would have sounded in Bach’s time,” she said. “It’s just something we never actually hear. We don’t hear the music the way the composers intended it to be heard. If you listen to the modern version and the version on these period instruments, it sounds quite different.”
The Passion is the centerpiece of Juilliard in Aiken, but the weeklong festival is filled with music and outreach events.
Juilliard415, the Triptych Percussion Ensemble and The Choir of Trinity Wall Street will give separate performances throughout the week, each centered on Bach’s work.
“Most of the performances have some of Bach’s work incorporated into them. That’s kind of the theme that runs through all the performances,” Jennings said.
Outreach is a major component of the festival. Juilliard in Aiken gives Juilliard students the opportunity to work with schoolchildren in communities they aren’t usually able to get to, such as rural and more isolated communities. This year, many schoolchildren will be brought to interact with the musicians because there are nearly double the number of musicians who usually come to Aiken, Jennings said. Usually, musicians go into the schools to meet children where they are.
The outreach effort provides a different kind of learning experience for Juilliard students, Jennings said.
To invite the community to get into the spirit not only of The Passion but also of Easter, Juilliard in Aiken is inviting Aiken choirs and congregations to perform O Scared Head during the Lenten season. It is the best known hymn from The Passion, Jennings said.
“We’re hoping that it will be an opportunity to bring everybody in the community together around this piece of music, whether they’re people of a particular faith, or no faith, no matter what race they are, age they are, what kind of background they’re from. We want everybody to hear this music and participate in the message – Bach’s message,” Jennings said.