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Passion Defines Us at the UMKC Conservatory

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We are nothing if not passionate at the Conservatory. We educate, perform, inspire, and our students and faculty achieve a sense of exhilaration that emerges from achievement and artistry. Our successes are writ large and public when we perform in monumental halls and just as often expressed quietly and privately in breakthrough moments with students.

April and May find us exploring a full range of artistic passion with J.S. Bach’s St. John Passion and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D Minor.

There are only about 250 years separating J.S. Bach’s St. John Passion from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar. And while they may be separated by time and distance, they emerge from the same devotional zeal to telling the passion, or last hours, of Jesus Christ. This fertile lineage includes other modern works such as Arvo Pärt’s Passion, or even Broadway’s long-running Godspell.
For Dr. Robert Bode, none compares to the St. John Passion’s concision and dramatic sweep. On Sunday, April 14, Bode, the Raymond R. Neevel/Missouri Professor of Choral Music and Director of Choral Studies / Chair of Vocal Studies, conducts this piece in the beautiful sanctuary of Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral.

J.S. Bach wrote two passions, the St. John Passion and the more widely performed St. Matthew Passion. According to Dr. Bode, the St. John Passion is the finer of the two.

He writes, “The two passions are very different in style and intent. The St. Matthew is a largely reflective work; its greatness comes from those moments where the soloists reflect upon the events surrounding the crucifixion. The St. John is a much more active and dramatic work; the piece centers largely on the trial of Jesus before Pilate with the chorus playing the role of the crowd, which has delivered Jesus for trial. There are fewer moments of quiet reflection until the actual moment of the crucifixion. The action is so fast at times as to be breathtaking.”

While other composers have produced beautiful passions, including Handel and Telemann, among others, Bach’s works, in particular, may be unsurpassed for their virtuosity.

Dr. Bode continues, “The greatness of Bach for me is that, even though he wrote the passions with a particular audience in mind—a Lutheran congregation—he took great care in terms of structure and pacing to achieve real drama. The audience knew the story but, in Bach’s hands, the events are fresh and immediate. It is because of this immediacy that I have chosen to perform the piece in English rather than in the original German. I hope this allows the audience to enter into the drama of the story more completely.”

Bach’s music performed by UMKC Conservatory students emphasizes the romantic, yet real capacity of music to bind us to one another.

As one of the most widely recognized choral symphonies in the Western canon, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D Minor is also one of the most frequently performed and beloved.

Dr. Robert Olson, Professor and Director of Orchestras will conduct the Conservatory Orchestra and choirs in the Finale, May 6, in the grandeur of Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

Of the piece, Olson says, “It is very possibly the single greatest work of music ever created, on so many
levels … and while the final movement is, literally, mind-bending, I particularly love the first three movements and what they have to say. They are great examples of pure classical style, the very pinnacle of the art form, and are a preamble to the ‘never-before-conceived’ final movement.”

Drawing from the wellspring of hope that defines the text of Friedrich Schiller’s Ode to Joy, (some of which Beethoven rewrote) Beethoven’s masterpiece still resonates across time. Words of companionship, and love’s joy and healing power may offer us solace and encouragement today in the same way those words did almost 200 years ago.

Olson concludes, “One thing in particular that I love about bringing Beethoven’s No. 9 to life is the opportunity to do so with the talented young students at the Conservatory. I remember so vividly the impact certain pieces had on me as I was growing my musical wings as a student, and it is a great privilege to be able to share this with other young people.”

The Conservatory’s passion for performance, artistry, teaching, and learning is a continuum, mutable, and yet, ever constant in its core values of excellence, innovation, and engagement.

Dana Self

Dana Self is an arts writer who was a contemporary art curator for more than 13 years in Kansas, Wisconsin, Missouri, and Tennessee museums, including the Kemper Museum. She has organized about 100 exhibitions of emerging and mid career artists.

She is currently marketing director for UMKC’s Conservatory of Music and Dance.

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