The young singer’s guide to J.S. Bach’s Evangelist role: A trans-generational perspective with acclaimed conductors Helmuth Rilling, Masaaki Suzuki, and Craig Hella Johnson



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With the growing presence of historically informed performance (HIP) of baroque music in the cultural mainstream, as well as modern productions of J.S. Bach’s (1685-1750) works that push the envelope with increasingly varied interpretations, current performers must continually bring a greater diversity of scope, audience experience, and flexibility of implementation to their respective roles. Bach’s Evangelist role—the Gospel narrator set for a solo tenor voice, most notably in his St. Matthew Passion, St. John Passion, Christmas Oratorio, and Ascension Oratorio—incorporates a daunting number of factors for its performer. One must navigate an array of characterizations and HIP considerations through acute intonation and agility, all while compelling and engaging an audience. Therefore, a young singer learning the role for the first time, with the goal of performing it professionally, might understandably feel a bit lost. Helmuth Rilling (b. 1933), Masaaki Suzuki (b. 1954), and Craig Hella Johnson (b. 1962) represent three generations of the most celebrated, award-winning conductors spanning the past six decades, who have all played influential roles in the cultural landscape of vocal and choral music, especially with regard to the works of Bach. They agreed to give interviews during the summer of 2015, in which I asked each of them the following three categorical questions:

  1. What do you look for when hiring a Bach Evangelist?
  2. What is the Bach Evangelist’s function to you?
  3. What do you recommend to a young singer when first learning the role? Based on information gathered through interviews with acclaimed conductors Helmuth Rilling, Masaaki Suzuki, and Craig Hella Johnson, along with my own experience as a professional performer of the Bach Evangelist roles with such interpreters, this document aims to highlight assertions and special considerations during the preparation of the role, as a resource to supplement and support conventional, institutional vocal training.



Bach, Johann, Sebastian, Evangelist, Role, Singer, Guide, Trans-generational, Perspective, Conductors, Acclaimed, Helmuth, Rilling, Masaaki, Suzuki, Craig, Hella, Johnson