Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Struggling Bach Center Rallies for Easter Passion

Soli Deo Gloria. To God alone be the glory. Such was the inscription Johann Sebastian Bach placed at the end of the scores of his sacred compositions. Perhaps nowhere in Bach's work is this credo so brilliantly manifest as in the St. Matthew Passion, a mammoth, nearly three hour-long work composed in 1729 to celebrate the sacrifice and suffering of Jesus.

Now, in a triumph for the perennially cash-strapped Bach Center Orchestra, the much-loved Passion is being presented Saturday, the eve of Orthodox Easter, at the Conservatory's Great Hall.

Saturday's sold-out 7 p.m. performance is remarkable for two reasons. First, the Bach Center Orchestra, struggling since its inception in 1989 to survive, has rallied its forces to present a work written for a colossal ensemble of musicians -- two choirs and two orchestras.

Second, the presentation of either Passion -- Bach wrote two that survive, the St. Matthew and the St. John -- during Holy Week, though standard in many West European countries, is a rare occurrence in Russia. For a work that deserves and receives annual attention in most Western capitals, the absence of the St. Matthew Passion from the calendar last year was a source of no mild consternation for devoted concertgoers.

For reasons that remain unclear, Bach and his baroque contemporaries generally get short shrift in the concert halls of the Russian capital. But the Bach Center Orchestra and Sergei Myasoyedov, artistic director and conductor, have stepped in to fill the gap.

As Myasoyedov's brainchild, the Bach Center exists primarily to promote the music of J.S. Bach and his contemporaries. But during the six years since their first concert in March 1990, the center's ensemble has expanded its repertoire to include not only baroque but also classical and 20th-century music. In fact, the only serious music that has not been represented in the center's programs is that of the romantic period.

When it was first created, the Bach Center supported an orchestra and a mixed choir of both adults and children. As inflation hit, the Center's financial situation worsened, and the adult component of the choir was cut.

In the meantime, the center has received some backing from foreign sources. Not surprisingly, this ongoing support comes from Germany, from the Bach Academy in Stuttgart. In another variation on the German theme, the representative office of the makers of Mercedes is assisting the Bach Center in its Saturday performance by paying for rental of the Great Hall. In general, the dearth of funds means that the center can put on just a few concerts; this season it will give only seven.

Its spare calendar notwithstanding, the ensemble's Bach repertoire is impressive, and its all-Bach programs, according to Myasoyedov, "almost always guarantee a sell-out crowd." In 1991, the center premiered the Easter Oratorio, on Orthodox Easter Sunday; in 1992, the Christmas cantatas; in 1993, the Christmas Oratorio.

Myasoyedov, artistic director and conductor of the Bach Center, comes to the podium eminently qualified to tackle the intricacies of a Passion. Originally a keyboardist, he pursued dual training in choral and operatic conducting at the Moscow Conservatory.

On Saturday, he will coordinate the efforts of two choirs, one from the Moscow Pedagogical University, the other the Stuttgart-based Brahms Choir, along with two orchestras -- the Bach Center's and Vremena goda, or The Seasons.

In Russia, Passions generally have been performed in the spring, close to Easter, but with no particular regard -- at least during the Soviet era -- for coordinating the performance with the activities of Holy Week. In planning for this year's presentation of the St. Matthew, Myasoyedov said he approached the Conservatory in hopes that the Great Hall would be available on Good Friday, when Passions are traditionally performed. The hall was booked Friday, but Saturday was still available, he said.

Perhaps this scheduling works out better in Russia. The function of the Passion is to shed light on the sufferings of Christ and to draw the listeners, through the drama of the gospel text, into a contemplation of the mystery of Easter. These two elements -- the dramatic and the contemplative -- fuse seamlessly in Bach's St. Matthew Passion.

Listeners who attend the performance Saturday night will be superbly prepared to leave the concert hall at 10 p.m. and continue the celebration of Easter at Orthodox churches, where services generally begin around 11 p.m. and last into the early hours of Easter morning.

Unfortunately, the center decided to sell most of the hall's 1,800 tickets through its members, rather than placing the tickets with the Conservatory for dissemination through the box office.

Concertgoers who have no affiliation with members of the orchestra will have to comfort themselves with the slim hope that vkhodnyye, or standing-room-only tickets, will be available at the box office just before the concert begins.

The normally ubiquitous scalpers may not be able to help, since even they had limited access to tickets.

The Conservatory is located at 13 Bolshaya Nikitskaya Ulitsa. Nearest metro: Pushkinskaya. Tel. 229-8183, 299-0658.