Another view: Fresno Master Chorale’s St. John Passion was painful for Jewish audience member
After my enthusiastic coverage of the Fresno Master Chorale’s performance of Bach’s “St. John Passion,” I received another view from a reader. (The reader, a longtime community member, opted not to include a name because of the aggressive online environment regarding issues of faith and religion.) Here’s the letter.
I saw your review of the Bach piece last Sunday. I was most distressed to find an old fashioned passion play. I had hoped to enjoy the lovely music and not see a stiff, odd, visual acting out of the crucifixion.
I understand that this was a Bach Passion Play, but with the archaic blame for the crucifixion placed firmly on Jews, many pogroms were the result through history. Most passion plays have been banned in Europe due to its racial animus nature.
As a Jew, I found this performance very painful. I understand it is a very meaningful expression for Christians, but the play belongs in the church. The music belongs to history and the world, now. The production seemed more than a play, but an actual religious service. Needless to say, I could not sit through the second part and left.
Here’s what I wrote in return:
Thank you for taking the time to tell me of your reaction to the concert.
The objections you raise, to tell you honestly, never even crossed my mind. That says something about my own background and experiences. I was aware that Passion plays were considered anti-Semitic, but I somehow never made the connection between the semi-staging of Bach’s piece and Passion plays themselves. Again, that lack of recognition is a result of my lack of awareness. (I was raised Presbyterian, and we never had Passion plays, nor have I ever experienced one.) Now that you point it out, I see that, of course, this did become a “play” when the decision was made to stage it.
I’ve since learned that changes have been made to the St. John Passion in recent years to lessen the anti-Semitic element and that the Fresno version incorporated those changes. Still, I’m not in your shoes, and it’s clear you were offended. I’m sorry for that.
I’m so glad someone brought this up. This piece has been the subject of controversy because of the text practically from its beginning. Many organizations will simply not perform it. Scholarly debate continues, and there is no “Definitive” interpretation. Leonard Bernstein never performed or recorded it. I am a Jew and was a member of the orchestra, and I confess that when I read the text (the original, not the sanitized version we presents) I was greatly disturbed and wished I hadn’t committed to playing it. But by that time it was too late to reconsider. The music is beautiful, yes, but the piece is problematic, and I wish it had been acknowledged in some way.
Forgiveness is a recognition that the past can not be changed. For me, it’s not about Jews killing Christ. Christ was a Jew and all Christians should understand that their beliefs are rooted in Judaism. It’s too easy in our society to blame others. It takes courage and deep thought to achieve understanding… something too many of us don’t take the time to do. I did not attend the performance but am sorry your reader felt that they couldn’t stay and enjoy the performance.