In the early summer of 2018, my husband, my kids, and me had the good fortune to be able to visit Italy for the first time in our lives. When I was growing up, we usually went to France in the summer vacation, as was normal for families from the Netherlands. I did have Latin in high school, but our class was very small, and trips to Rome where not the norm at that school. In college, I had somehow missed the choir tour to Italy, and had “only” gone on the ones to Spain (three times) and Portugal. So it was a very special treat to me to finally be able to go to Italy, and see several of the art works in real life.
After three relaxing days in the mountains and three wonderful days in Venice, we traveled on to Ravenna. I had gone back and forth about including Ravenna in the itinerary. Would we want yet another stop? Was it worth it to have less time in Umbria as a result of the extra night in Ravenna?
In Venice, we had learned that visiting tourist attractions at 5 pm or later was the best way to avoid the busloads of tourists. So on the morning we left Venice, I emailed the guide in Ravenna I had been corresponding with in the weeks before that we might still want to visit the mosaics with her between 5 and 7 pm, if she was still free. If I could confirm after lunch time? She was fine with that. (Later we learned that the busiest time for the tour guides in Ravenna is the school year, when all the Italian kids come to learn about this important time and place in Italian (art) history, and that most of them are more flexible in the summer).
At 10:30 am, we did a reverse commute on the ferry from the Zattere in Venice’s Dorsoduro neighborhood to Fusina on the mainland, where our rental car had been parked for three nights. We drove to Chioggia and ate a delightful seafood lunch at a no-frills restaurant at the harbor there. Then we confirmed our time with the guide and drove the extremely boring road to Ravenna, still wondering if all this was worth it.
But our visit to the mosaics with the guide was one of the best and most peaceful experiences we had that entire vacation. There was no line at the ticket office, the mosaics were stunningly beautiful, the buildings practically empty that time of day, and our guide was extremely knowledgable and fun to be with (it was hard saying good-bye to her after the two hours). All four of us cherish our memories of that visit.
The most impressive monument to all of us was the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, because of how well preserved and vibrant the mosaics in that monument are. I had been using the mosaic of Jesus as “The Good Shepherd” already twice on this blog, and it was deeply moving to me to see it there in real life. So I’m featuring it again today.
Jesus as the Good Shepherd is the theme for this Second Sunday after Easter, and it appears in all three cantatas Bach wrote for this Sunday: BWV 104 from 1724, BWV 85 from 1725, and BWV 112 from 1731. I have yet to write about Cantata 112, but have written about Cantata 104 here in 2017, and about Cantata 85 here in 2016.
A little over 22 years ago, my husband and I moved from the Netherlands to California. My husband is a Jazz bass player in his spare time, so for him the music was another aspect to “living in Paradise.” There are many more Jazz performances and festivals here than in Europe, and there are lots of people here to do jam sessions with.
But for me it was a different story. I found a wonderful voice teacher and a good choir to sing in, but I missed the strong Dutch tradition of hearing and performing Bach’s Passions in the weeks before Easter. I used to have my biggest bouts of homesickness around that time of year. The heartache was softened only by it being my most favorite blooming season in California: the few weeks when two native trees, the purple Western Redbud (Cercis Occidentalis) and the blue-violet wild lilac (Ceanothus) bloom at the same time. The photos here don’t really capture how beautiful those colors are and how stunning it is when you see them together in the landscape, but it is something that makes me very happy.
Last year I didn’t have any homesickness, because all Passions in the Netherlands or Belgium I could have attended or participated in were canceled, so I didn’t feel I was missing anything. And while the world locked down, at the same time it became more accessible to me, because performances were now being moved to the internet. This meant I could watch the dress rehearsal of Herreweghe’s St. John Passion without the 11-hour plane ride or the struggle with jet lag. (That video registration is still available: find it here – scroll a bit down to where it says “Passions 2020”).
This year there were so many online St. Matthew or St. John Passion offerings from the Netherlands it was almost overwhelming. I didn’t have time to listen to all of them before writing this today, because most of the videos didn’t go live until yesterday, Good Friday. So I’ll just focus on a few that stood out to me.
Find the English translations of the St. John Passion here; the St. Matthew Passion here.
In the category “most interactive creation” I would like to mention the St. John Passion by Zing als vanZelf. An initiative of online singing instructor Bert van de Wetering, this organization invited thousands of singers to record themselves singing the chorales at home in the weeks leading up to Good Friday. They then recorded a performance with professional soloists singing the arias and the choruses with the excellent Combattimento Consort (Cynthia Miller Freivogel, concertmaster) as the orchestra, this all under the direction of Pieter Dirksen. Then they edited all this together into a video where you see the performance from a pretty church in a small town in the Netherlands, but every time there is a chorale you see the “choir” of individual volunteer singers pieced together on the screen. A really clever and touching solution. Watch it here. If you enjoy it, please consider making a donation, similar to what you would have paid if you would have attended this in person. The link for that is right there under the video.
For readers who understand Dutch and would like to learn more about the St. Matthew Passion, I highly recommend the video program from the organization that every year brings performances of this masterpiece to the beautiful Bergkerk in the city of Deventer. This year they recorded four arias from the St. Matthew Passion, in the order they appear in the second half of the work: “Erbarme dich” (sung by countertenor Maarten Engeltjes), “Aus Liebe” (sung by soprano Renate Arends), “Komm, süßes Kreuz” (sung by bass Florian Just), and “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein” (sung by bass Marc Pantus). What I liked best about this video is the conversations director Klaas Stok has with each soloist before they sing their aria. Through these conversations, I gained a lot of new insights into the meaning of the different arias. I especially loved what Klaas Stok had to say about the architecture of the piece, the role each aria plays in the overall structure, and how different movements are connected. Of all the talks, I particularly enjoyed bass Marc Pantus’ take on “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein,” the final aria on the program. You can watch this until April 14. Just click here. But please note, it is all in Dutch. Again, a link to donate is right there under the video.
Last but not least, the most impressive performance I listened to yesterday and today: The St. John Passion (1725 version) by the Netherlands Bach Society under the direction of René Jacobs. This was shown on Dutch television on Good Friday, so if you don’t understand Dutch, you’ll have to sit through a confusing excerpt from the St. Matthew Passion and a few ads at first, but then you can forward the video 14 minutes, to skip the pre-concert interview with René Jacobs. Soloists are Daniel Johannsen, tenor (Evangelist); Johannes Kammler, bass (Christ); Robin Johannsen, soprano; Alberto Miguélez Rouco, countertenor; Thomas Hobbs, tenor; and Arttu Kataja, bass. There is so much fluidity and phrasing in the orchestra, such a good blend in the choir, as well as excellent enunciation from the choir, it is extraordinary. All the choral movements are extremely transparent, I enjoyed that very much. Jacobs takes some risks with considerably slower tempi in the chorales than is usual in the Historical Performance Practice world, stretching out the pauses in the Evangelist’s recitatives, and taking long fermatas on ending notes, but it is never old-fashioned or too Romantic. It makes for a very engaging, one of a kind performance. All soloists are wonderful, but I would like to give a shout-out to the two tenors: Daniel Johannsen for being an excellent Evangelist, and Thomas Hobbs for his fabulous “Zerschmettert mich” aria (one of the arias that is not in the better known, 1724 version). Donate to the Netherlands Bach Society here.
If you don’t feel like listening to any Passion music anymore, please find my three Easter blog posts from previous years through the following links: