Part II of the ‘St. Matthew Passion’ performed around Lake Tahoe |

Part II of the ‘St. Matthew Passion’ performed around Lake Tahoe

Linda J. Bottjer
Conductor James Rawie leads a Toccata rehearsal from the 2010 "Passion" series at the Trinity Episcopal Church. The photograph was taken by vocal soloist Joy Strotz.

When Johann Sebastian Bach composed “St. Matthew Passion,” he created a musical tapestry.

Threads of betrayal and compassion are woven with sorrow, acceptance and everlasting love. The Baroque masterpiece of the early 18th century heralded in the beginning of the Easter weekend when it debuted in Leipzig, Germany.

Starting on Palm Sunday, April 17, Toccata, the Orchestra and Community Chorus of the Tahoe Area, will present the Part II of Passion for six performances throughout Reno and the Lake Tahoe Basin.

Conducted by Toccata founder and artistic director James Rawie, the second part is both intimate and monumental as through a series of singers, mostly male, the story of Jesus’ last few days on Earth is told. The music, sung in English, depicts of his trial, crucifixion and burial.

Despite its religious overtones, the piece is not overly sacred according to Stuart Duke, Jonathan Leo, John Hutto and Daniel Paulson. The quartet of singers will be featured as Jesus, Pontius Pilate and the Evangelitist. Hutto and Paulson swap out the last role.

The reason is simple.

Similar to major league pitchers’ arms, singers’ voices also require a rest.

“As the storyteller and narrator, my role is 50 percent of the action,” said Paulson, a tenor, who lives in Sacramento and teaches music department at American River College.

Hutto agrees: “It is one of the most challenging pieces to be performed.”

With degrees in music and business Hutto is known for entertaining both co-workers and patrons at the Stateline bank where he works.

“I hum a lot,” he said.

It was humming that first caught the attention of Toccata organist David Brock, a bank patron, who encouraged Hutto to join the group in 2007.

Jonathan Leo, playing Roman governor Pontius Pilate, was delighted to find such high caliber musicians after he and his wife left Southern California three years ago. His devotion to Bach is long. At age 14 he changed his middle name to Sebastian.

He agrees with the Passion’s complexity, and calls the music is as close to opera as Bach, constrained by contracts with his employer, was allowed to produce. Contracts are close to Leo’s nine-to-five job as an environmental lawyer and consultant.

Bach’s technical skills were outstanding, said Stuart Duke whose baritone voice will be portraying Jesus. He is especially drawn to the composer’s ability to write in colors of sound and a personal idiom.

“Once you key into his language, and it is extreme,” he said, “it pulls you to greater artistic heights.”

As a full-time music teacher for middle school and college students in Reno he appreciates the Passion’s difficulties as music and messages merge.

“It is a challenge and I love a challenge,” he said.

Paulson calls it multi-dimensional music unlike modern offerings written for sheer entertainment. Finding the nuances of Bach requires his working his part in sections. It is a task he, like the others, relish.

“His music resonates within me,” he said.

All four singers express how Passion’s music and words will find a way to thrill every audience member regardless of age.

“Toccata’s quality is extreme,” Hutto said of the musical organization whose mission to offer affordable performances while raising awareness and provide a venue for talented musicians have made them a local arts institution of renown.

Other vocal soloists include Katharine DeBoer, Anna Helwing and Joy Strotz, sopranos and Karen Solaegui, mezzo-soprano. David Brock will play a organ continuo along with bassoonist Ben Benson. Bass player Ben Wallekm cellist Charles Taggart and the Toccata chorus will also be featured.

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