The Drama of the Johannes Passion

Johann Sebastian Bach’s St John Passion stands as a testament to the power of music to convey profound emotion and drama. Written in the early 18th century, this sacred oratorio continues to captivate audiences with its rich harmonies, intricate melodies, and poignant text. In exploring why this masterpiece remains deeply moving, we uncover Bach’s genius in capturing the essence of the dramatic narrative through music.

At the heart of the St John Passion lies the retelling of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, as depicted in the Gospel of John. Bach masterfully weaves together scripture passages, poetry, and chorales to create a compelling musical narrative that transports listeners to the heart of the Passion story. Through his intricate composition, Bach captures the range of emotions experienced by the characters, from the anguish of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane to the despair of Peter after his denial.

One of the most striking aspects of Bach’s St John Passion is its ability to evoke a visceral response from listeners. The music is imbued with a sense of urgency and intensity, mirroring the emotional turmoil of the events unfolding. In the opening chorus, “Herr, unser Herrscher” (Lord, our Ruler), the dissonant harmonies and driving rhythms set the stage for the impending drama, drawing listeners into the story from the outset.

Throughout the oratorio, Bach employs a variety of musical techniques to underscore the emotional depth of the text. The use of chromaticism, sudden dynamic shifts, and dramatic pauses all serve to heighten the tension and convey the sense of conflict inherent in the Passion narrative. In the aria “Es ist vollbracht” (It is accomplished), for example, the hauntingly beautiful melody and sparse accompaniment convey both the solemnity of Jesus’ sacrifice and the profound sense of fulfillment.

One of the most moving moments in the St John Passion is the chorale “Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine” (Rest well, you holy limbs), which concludes the work. As the choir sings this tender farewell to Jesus, Bach’s music offers a sense of solace and consolation, providing a glimmer of hope amidst the darkness of the crucifixion. It is a moment of profound beauty and reflection, inviting listeners to contemplate the deeper meaning of Christ’s sacrifice.

While listening to a recording of Bach’s St John Passion can be a transformative experience in itself, there is truly nothing quite like witnessing a live performance. The immediacy of the music, combined with the energy and emotion of the performers, creates an immersive experience that is unmatched by any recording. In a live performance, the audience becomes an integral part of the drama, swept up in the ebb and flow of the music as it unfolds before them.

Moreover, attending a live performance of the St John Passion allows listeners to connect with a centuries-old tradition of sacred music. Bach’s oratorio has been performed countless times since its composition, yet each performance offers a fresh interpretation, breathing new life into the timeless story it tells. Whether performed in a grand concert hall or a humble church setting, the St John Passion continues to resonate with audiences of all backgrounds and beliefs, transcending the boundaries of time and culture.

Bach’s St John Passion remains a masterpiece of sacred music, moving listeners with its profound emotional depth and dramatic intensity. Through his inspired composition, Bach captures the essence of the Passion narrative, inviting audiences to experience the timeless drama of Christ’s sacrifice in a profoundly personal way. To witness a live performance of the St John Passion is to embark on a journey of musical and spiritual discovery, one that promises to leave a lasting impression on the heart and soul.

Sing-Along Messiah FAQ

Messiah time is almost here! We love putting together and performing Handel’s Messiah each year. If it were possible we would fit everyone from Saskatoon’s large choral community on stage with us for one amazing choir. Since there isn’t nearly enough room up front (and scheduling rehearsals would be a nightmare) we have the Sing-Along Messiah the afternoon after the Messiah performance. Choral professionals and enthusiasts alike join in singing beloved Messiah choruses as one huge choir.

Always wondered about the Sing-Along but you’ve never taken the leap? Have no fear! Here are some answers to the frequently asked Messiah Sing-Along questions.

Where and when is the Sing-Along?

Sing-Along Messiah is Saturday, December 16th at 2:30 pm in Knox United Church. This is the same location for the Friday night performance. Doors open at 1:45 pm so come early to get your seat (and perhaps do a warmup or two)!

How do I get tickets?

Tickets are available online and at the door. Singers tickets are just $20 and our Scotiabank 25Below is in effect at the door! ($15 for anyone 25 and under with ID at the ticket table)

Do I have to sing?

No! We do not force everyone to sing. If you want to come enjoy our soloists, and an incredibly large choir, come watch and listen. We recommend you sit in one of the balconies at Knox to have the full experience.

Where do the singers sit?

We divide the main floor into sections (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass) so you can sit with your voice type (your people!). This way it is easier for those sight reading or experiencing their first Sing-Along. Confidence in numbers!

How do I know when to sing?

Our Saskatoon Symphony Chorus Conductor Duff Warkentin and Maestra Cosette Justso Valdés will be there to lead the charge! Keep your eyes on the baton as there are changes in tempi. All sing-along portions are bolded in the program with title numbers.

Can I sing the soloists part?

We invite you to sing along with our Saskatoon Symphony Chorus. Our soloists will be there for the recits and arias. In this relaxed setting, they might try out a  few new ornaments! So sit back, relax, and enjoy the beautiful sounds of our special guests.

What if I don’t have a messiah score?

Not to worry. We will have several copies that we lend out for the performance. Please make sure to return them after as they belong to the University of Saskatchewan Music Department!

Or you may want to put it on your tablet!



Sergei Rachmaninoff, composer

Legendary Russian-American composer and pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff left Russia after the Communist revolution of 1917. He was born on April 2, 1873, on a big estate near Novgorod, Russia. From the age of four, Rachmaninoff studied music with his mother; he continued his studies at the St. Petersburg Conservatory and the Moscow Conservatory under the guidance of professors Arensky, Taneyev, and Tchaikovsky.

Rachmaninoff’s concert performances were legendary, and he was recognized as a great pianist with unmatched power, emotion and technical excellence. He could reach a twelfth, or an octave and a half, or, for example, from middle C to high G, thanks to his huge hands. Rachmaninoff frequently used musical references from folk ballads, jazz, oriental music, and more into his own pieces. He wrote music with unusually wide chords and intensely romantic melody lines.

Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini

In 1934, Sergey Rachmaninoff performed the solo part for the world premiere of his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43, in Baltimore, Maryland. With its virtuosity, emotional range, and creative twists on Niccol Paganini’s classic theme, this enduring composition continues to be a favourite of the piano concerto repertoire.

The “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” is written for piano solo and orchestral accompaniment. However, Rachmaninoff personalizes this piece with creative twists by using a pre-existing theme from Paganini’s Violin Caprice No. 24 as the foundation of this composition. This provides thematic material for a hauntingly beautiful melody, that serves as the musical backbone of the entire work.

 The piece is based on the hauntingly beautiful 24th Caprice from Niccolò Paganini’s Caprices for Solo Violin, which provides the thematic material for the variations that follow. Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody is a stunning display of technical brilliance, emotional depth, and musical ingenuity, making it one of the most beloved works in the piano repertoire.



Rachmaninoff’s skill in transforming a musical idea into a variety of moods and emotions, from fun and whimsical to somber and dramatic, is demonstrated by his clever use of the Paganini theme throughout the variations.



Dvorak’s Symphony no. 7

Rachmaninoff writes cryptically on the first page of the manuscript, “This main theme occurred to me upon the arrival at the station of the ceremonial train from Pest in 1884.” Czechs were travelling from Hungary to Prague for a performance at the National Theatre, which was followed by a pro-Czech political demonstration.

The immediate issues of the 1880s had long-standing causes; for centuries, the Czech territories had been governed by the Austrian Hapsburg monarchy, and the Czech people were frequently treated as inferiors within the empire.

Over a low rumbling from the basses, timpani, and horns, the cellos and violas introduce the theme. A brief pastoral horn solo follows. A beautiful theme for flute and clarinets follows, and as it is passed to the violins, it becomes more intense. The opening theme makes a strong comeback at the movement’s climax. Following a dramatic coda, the movement comes to an end with one more appearance of the opening theme.

A calm, hymn-like chorale serves as the opening to the quiet second movement.  A lyrical horn melody appears before taking an abruptly dramatic turn. The primary theme returns in the cellos after a series of powerful, contemplative developments, setting up the violins to lead an emotional passage. The hymn-like chorale from the beginning returns on the oboe over pianissimo, tremolo strings as the movement comes to a close.

The violins begin the third movement with a Czech furiant as the cellos and bassoons simultaneously play a Viennese waltz underneath it. This uneasy dance of two themes sets the tone for the whole work. This could be interpreted as a metaphor for Dvořák’s pursuit of great Czech music employing traditional Austro-German forms.

A furiant is a rapid and fiery Bohemian dance in alternating 2/4 and 3/4 time, with frequently shifting accents; or, in “art music”, in 3/4 time “with strong accents forming pairs of beats”

The finale opens with an ominous melody full of chromatic inflections that give it a Slavic character. This main melody develops into a number of increasingly frenzied march-like themes until a contrasting, lyrical melody appears.The music hurtles toward a rafter-shaking plagal cadence, the chords traditionally used for the word “Amen,” and ends with a resplendent D major chord, offering a glimmer of hope at the end of this intense musical journey.

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Les Préludes

Liszt himself declared, after becoming an abbé in the Catholic Church, “The best of me is in my religious music.” However, the composer’s judgment has not coincided with posterity’s, which has set the seal of approval on Liszt’s piano concertos and many of his solo piano pieces, and on a select few of his orchestral works. Les préludes is one of these, being the most famous of his 12 symphonic poems. Liszt had a very strong conviction on the subject of program music, namely, that a given story is a symbol of an idea, and that the expounding of the inherent philosophical and humanistic elements of the idea in pure lyricism should be the goal.

In theory, and most often in practice, Liszt, of all the 19th-century composers of program music, was closer to realizing the sense of Beethoven’s preface to his “Pastoral” Symphony: “More the expression of sentiment than painting.” Of course, Liszt, like Beethoven, with his drenchingly graphic rain and thunderstorm, acceded to certain specific picturesque temptations. But essentially the Lisztian imagery is poetically suggestive rather than concretely descriptive, and it was arrived at in original musical ways that worked a profound influence on all those, including Wagner, prepared to accept a new order.

Liszt’s structural means for attaining his goal was the devising of a free form in which a few basic themes undergo continuous transformations of melody, rhythm, harmony, timbre, dynamics, or tempo (any one, or several, or all of these simultaneously). Thus, for example, a Lisztian love theme can emerge as a blazing march, or vice-versa. The first-mentioned is precisely what happens in Les préludes. In the climactic section, the pair of lyric themes labeled by Liszt “the enchanted dawn of every life” and containing the work’s pervading three-note motif, are transformed into surging battle calls.

Les préludes was composed in 1854 and to it was appended a program note written by Liszt, indicating that the piece is to be considered a musical depiction of a poem by Alphonse de Lamartine.

“What is our life but a series of preludes to that unknown song whose first solemn note is tolled by death? The enchanted dawn of every life is love. But where is the destiny on whose first delicious joys some storm does not break?… And what soul thus cruelly bruised, when the tempest rolls away, seeks not to rest its memories in the pleasant calm of pastoral life? Yet man does not long permit himself to taste the kindly quiet that first attracted him to nature’s lap. For when the trumpet sounds he hastens to danger’s post, that in the struggle he may once more regain full knowledge of himself and his strength.”

— Orrin Howard

Music Talk – And Tomorrow

We’re live from the travel section of McNally Robinson Booksellers for Music Talk from McNally!

The SSO’s Mark Turner is joined by Nicolas Ellis who leads the SSO in what promises to be a stunning performance of Stravinsky’s Firebird on May 6, 2023. Turner and Ellis will also chat about the other music on the program including Liszt’s Les Préludes, Tailleferre’s Petite Suite pour Orchestre, and Strauss’ Four Lieder featuring the stunning voice of soprano Danika Lorèn.

Tabla Concerto

A note from composer Dinuk Wijeratne about his Tabla Concerto:

1. Canons, Circles
2. Folk song: ‘White in the moon the long road lies
(that leads me from my love)’
3. Garland of Gems

While the origins of the Tabla are somewhat obscure, it is evident that this ‘king’ of Indian percussion instruments has achieved global popularity for the richness of its timbre, and for the virtuosity of a rhythmically complex repertoire that cannot be separated from the instrument itself. In writing a large-scale work for Tabla and Symphony Orchestra, it is my hope to allow each entity to preserve its own aesthetic. Perhaps, at the same time, the stage will be set for some new discoveries.

While steeped in tradition, the Tabla lends itself heartily to innovation, and has shown its cultural versatility as an increasingly sought-after instrument in contemporary Western contexts such as Pop, Film Music, and World Music Fusion. This notion led me to conceive of an opening movement that would do the not-so-obvious by placing the Tabla first in a decidedly non-Indian context. Here, initiated by a quasi-Baroque canon in four parts, the music quickly turns into an evocation of one my favourite genres of electronic music: ‘Drum-&-Bass’, characterised by rapid ‘breakbeat’ rhythms in the percussion. Of course, there are some North-Indian Classical musical elements present. The whole makes for a rather bizarre stew that reflects globalisation, for better or worse!

A brief second movement becomes a short respite from the energy of the outer movements, and offers a perspective of the Tabla as accompanist in the lyrical world of Indian folk-song. Set in ‘dheepchandhi’, a rhythmic cycle of 14 beats, the gently lilting gait of theTabla rhythm supports various melodic fragments that come together to form an ephemeral love-song.

Typically, a Tabla player concluding a solo recital would do so by presenting a sequence of short, fixed (non-improvised) compositions from his/her repertoire. Each mini-composition, multi-faceted as a little gem, would often be presented first in the form of a vocal recitation. The traditional accompaniment would consist of a drone as well as a looping melody outlining the time cycle – a ‘nagma’ – against which the soloist would weave rhythmically intricate patterns of tension and release. I wanted to offer my own take on a such a recital finale, with the caveat that the orchestra is no bystander. In this movement, it is spurred on by the soloist to share in some of the rhythmic complexity. The whole movement is set in ‘teentaal’, or 16-beat cycle, and in another departure from the traditional norm, my nagma kaleidoscopically changes colour from start to finish. I am indebted to Ed Hanley for helping me choose several ‘gems’ from the Tabla repertoire, although we have certainly had our own fun in tweaking a few, not to mention composing a couple from scratch.

© Dinuk Wijeratne 2011


“The piece is fantastic, complex, and brilliant. The orchestration and solo writing are masterful. I didn’t think one could pull off [such] a concerto, but Dinuk did. I don’t know of anything like it. The audience went crazy after it for good reason.” John Corigliano

“This is simply the best Western Classical piece written for my instrument”– Sandeep Das, Grammy-winning tabla player; Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble

“Dinuk Wijeratne’s Tabla Concerto is a breath of fresh air in the repertoire – a vibrant, colourful piece that orchestras love to play, and audiences will never forget.” JoAnn Falletta, Music Director: Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra & Virginia Symphony Orchestra; Principal Conductor: the Ulster Orchestra

“Dinuk is one of the most gifted musicians I know. His Tabla Concerto is a pioneering work of musical fusion, a seamless integration of the most complex aspects of North Indian Classical Tabla music into a totally Western model.”– Bernhard Gueller, Music Director: Symphony Nova Scotia

“Dinuk Wijeratne’s Tabla Concerto is a fresh, engaging, cross-cultural, embracing and original piece, which blends cultures marvellously. Combined with Sandeep Das’ virtuosity and energy as soloist, the concerto delighted both audience and orchestra at its US premieres. To include tabla recitation in the last movement was a stroke of genius.”– Alastair Willis, Music Director: Illinois Symphony Orchestra

“Dinuk’s Concerto for Tabla and Orchestra is utterly spectacular. From the moment it begins, you are drawn into an evocative world where cultures have no barriers, and co-exist in a way that is completely natural. Add to that a high octane, colourful score and everyone…musicians, audience, conductor…all leave excited and looking for more!”– Robert Franz, Music Director: Windsor Symphony Orchestra, Boise Philharmonic

Tabla 101

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Our featured Vibrant Light soloist Shawn Mativetsky is a course lecturer at the Schulich School of Music.  He was a part of Shulich’s Short Form Studies and created a guide that takes you through rhythmic applications inspired by the music of North India. It begins with an introduction to the tabla and includes a permutation exercise to include in your practice sessions!

It’s a great introduction to the tabla and a sneak peek into what we will experience with Dinuk Wijeratne’s Tabla Concerto.