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Entertainment Highlights: Handel Society Performs Bach’s ‘St. Matthew Passion’

The Handel Society is to perform J.S. Bach's St. Matthew Passion at Dartmouth College on May 18-19. (Jon Gilbert Fox photograph)

The Handel Society is to perform J.S. Bach's St. Matthew Passion at Dartmouth College on May 18-19. (Jon Gilbert Fox photograph)

Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, the oratorio that the Handel Society of Dartmouth College will perform this weekend, is not the type of piece that a choral ensemble can pull off on an annual basis. It’s long — the Handel Society’s performance will span just over three hours, with an intermission — and sung in German by six adult soloists from across the U.S., two adult choruses and a children’s chorus, accompanied by two orchestras. Musically, the St. Matthew Passion incorporates the many strands of Bach’s work as a composer.

“The scope, the orchestration, the borrowing from operatic tradition of lush solo movements for voice, his refinement of writing for instruments, it all comes back to roost in a hybrid setting of voices and instruments combined,” said Robert Duff, the artistic director of the Handel Society who will conduct the group this weekend.

To say the least, Duff added, “it’s a huge undertaking.”

Based on chapters 26 and 27 of Matthew’s Gospel, which details the final hours of Jesus before his crucifixion, the St. Matthew Passion is believed to have been first performed in a church in Leipzig, Germany, where Bach wrote music for church services, around 1727. Bach would revise the piece several times during his life, and given his obligations to write a 30-minute piece for Sunday services each week, it’s fair to assume that Bach, both as a composer and a man of faith, considered the St. Matthew Passion a deeply important piece .

“For him to spend so much energy and time and writing, revising it five different times, states that there’s a personal interest and a compelling reason for him to revisit this work,” Duff said.

Arriving near the end of the Baroque period, the St. Matthew Passion was essentially lost in the decades after Bach’s death in 1750 as the era of classical music ushered in a renewed emphasis on simplicity in composition. Had it not been for the composer Felix Mendelssohn, who staged a revival of the piece in Berlin in 1829, the St. Matthew Passion may have been lost to the ages.

Dartmouth’s Handel Society, the oldest town-gown choral ensemble in the U.S., last performed the St. Matthew Passion in 1998. Though it’s a challenging piece to perform, Duff said he had no doubts about the ensemble’s ability to take it on.

“Whenever I work on Bach, it’s always an opportunity for growth and transformation,” he said. “Having spent the last five months with this work, I can say people have been transformed.”

In the run-up to this weekend’s performances, the Handel Society members received additional coaching in German pronunciation. Many members, including Linda Fowler, a Dartmouth government professor, also began to reconsider the dramatic elements found in the St. Matthew Passion.

“I don’t think some of us thought of the work as being a dramatic piece,” Fowler said. “It is a profound, sacred piece of music, but it has a lot of theater in it.”

For those non-German speakers, the Handel society’s performance will include projected English titles. And while the St. Matthew Passion is a Christian work , Duff said, there are powerful, universal lessons that linger in the piece. The St. Matthew Passion is a religious piece, rooted in a Christian worldview, but Duff believes its themes of unjust persecution may resonate with an audience of diverse beliefs.

“Crucifixion happens on a daily basis,” Duff said. “We may not call it that. My hope is that this piece will allow us to more fully understand suffering in our own time and develop appropriate responses.”

The Handel Society of Dartmouth College performs Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” at 7 p.m. Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday in the Hopkins Center’s Spaulding Auditorium ($7-$29).

Best Bets

Porgy and Bess, George Gershwin’s 1935 opera based on the lives of African-Americans living in the Catfish Row section of Charleston, S.C., gets a new treatment from BarnArts Center for the Arts. The principal cast, which includes vocalists Jasmine Thomas and Cameron Bernard Jones, from Manhattan will be joined by an ensemble of local performers for the opera’s famous numbers, including Summertime and I Got Plenty of Nothin’.

Directed by Andy Roninson and BarnArts Executive Director Jarvis Green, Porgy and Bess in Concert will be performed at 7 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday at the First Universalist Church of Barnard ($15, adults; $10, students; reserve tickets by calling 802-332-6020).

∎ The Grammy-nominated Heritage Blues Orchestra puts a gritty, modern spin on a host of blues traditions, winning an admirer in bluesman Taj Mahal, among others. The orchestra arrives in Claremont for a show at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Claremont Opera House ($25).

∎ The songs of singer-songwriter Karla Bonoff have been made famous by artists like Bonnie Raitt (Home) and Linda Ronstadt (Someone to Lay Down Beside Me). In her show at Tupelo Music Hall in White River Junction at 8 p.. tomorrow, Bonoff will perform these and songs from her entire catalog, reflecting a career that spans more than four decades ($35).

∎ The Americana band Yarn closes out the 2012-13 Tunbridge MountainFolk series tomorrow. To create their unique roots sound, Yarn draws from a broad group of influences, including Jerry Garcia, The Flying Burrito Brothers and the Rolling Stones, and they just released their newest album, Almost Home. Catch Yarn at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow at the Tunbridge Town Hall ($15, advance, tickets available at ww.mtnfolk.org; $20 at the door).

∎ Dartmouth’s World Music Percussion Ensemble wraps up its performing year with “Songs and Rhythms of Forests and Harvest,” a concert at 7 p.m. Wednesday in Spaulding Auditorium that includes a special appearance from Guinean master drummer Sayon Camara. The ensemble, led by Hafiz Shabazz, will perform several pieces from the Mandinka and Malinke music traditions of West Africa ($16).

Classical Music

The “Next Generation” show at Chandler Music Hall in Randolph features performances from talented young students of classical and vocal music, at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow ($10-$16, advance; $13-$19, day of show).

Jazz

The husband-and-wife duo of vocalist Sabrina Brown and saxophonist Fred Haas play a free set at ArtisTree Community Arts Center and Gallery in Woodstock from 7 to 9 p.m. tomorrow.

Dances

The Old Sam Peabody Band provides the music at the third Friday contra dance at the Little Theater in Woodstock. Dinner begins at 5:30 p.m. tomorrow, followed by a family dance at 6 p.m. and the evening dance at 8 p.m. ($8; free for children 18 and younger).

Onstage

The 2012-13 season at Northern Stage in White River Junction draws to a close this weekend with five final performances of Nunsense, Dan Goggin’s long-running off-Broadway musical comedy about the Little Sisters of Hoboken and their efforts to bury the members of their order who died after eating spoiled vichysoisse. Directed by Catherine Doherty, Nunsense will be performed at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow, Friday and Saturday, at 2 p.m. Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday. Visit www.northernstage.org for more information and to purchase tickets.

Open Mics

Seth Barbiero and Brian Warren host tonight’s open mic at Salt hill Pub in Lebanon, starting at 8.

∎ Chad Gibbs hosts Salt hill Pub in Hanover’s open mic at 7:30 p.m. Monday.

∎ Shepard’s Pie Restaurant on Route 4 in Quechee holds a Tuesday night open mic, starting at 6.

∎ The Colatina Exit in Bradford has an open mic on Tuesdays at 8 p.m.

∎ There’s an open jam every Tuesday night from 7 to 9 at Tuck’s Rock Dojo in Etna.

∎ Wednesday night is open mic night at Skunk Hollow Tavern in Hartland. It’s led by Gregory Brown and starts at 8:30.

∎ Anthony Furnari hosts an open mic at Seven Barrel Brewery in West Lebanon at 8 p.m. Wednesday.