By Leon Schelhase
For all musicians J.S. Bach and the keyboard are synonymous. Bach’s genius and vision have long stood as a test to every performer in a showcase of sensitivity, knowledge and musical command. The instruments he wrote for were nothing like the modern piano, and although it is common knowledge, we still have few players and audiences that are masters of Bach’s keyboard instruments. The organ aside, the harpsichord and clavichord are only now being regarded as equals to the piano. Of course, when we think of Bach’s keyboard music we are referring to great pieces of music for a solo keyboard instrument. The “Goldbergs”, the “48”, “Brandenburg 5” or the “Partitias” come to mind. However, the keyboard in Bach’s time most typically served the music in a different manner, that of accompaniment.
This New Years’ Eve, I have the honor of performing the evangelist in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio with Choral Arts Philadelphia, under the direction of Matthew Glandorf. I am thrilled to take on this role, and I am grateful to Matt and Choral Arts for this opportunity. This will be my first performance of one of the crown jewels of tenor repertoire.
For a young tenor, learning the evangelist roles from Bach’s major vocal works is a rite of passage. The endeavor of preparing an evangelist role is one full of tradition and lineage. Both of my teachers, James Taylor and Kurt Hansen, are first-rate evangelists and storytellers. When we consider their teachers, then those teachers’ teachers, and so on, we come to a startling realization: only about six generations of evangelists separate today’s young singers from Bach’s own original tenor. The result is a sort of oral history passed down from Bach’s time which still informs how we portray the evangelist today.