A passion for Bach

Japanese audiences have long taken avidly to Western classical music. But here’s a real turnaround. Western audiences are going just as crazy as their Japanese counterparts over performances of baroque music by native son Masaaki Suzuki and his Bach Collegium Japan.

Born into one of Japan’s small minority of Christian families, Suzuki became enthralled with the use of period instruments while studying with music scholars in Holland. He returned in 1983 to Kobe, where he organized a concert series at Shoin Women’s University and formed the Collegium, a period-instrument ensemble, in 1990. His group makes its North American tour debut with rare and challenging back-to-back performances of Bach’s “St. John” and “St. Matthew” Passions Friday and Saturday at Royce Hall, UCLA. As he prepared to make the trip, Suzuki took a moment to muse on the group and its music.

Did you anticipate that Japanese audiences would respond as enthusiastically to the Bach Collegium as they have?

In the beginning, we encountered much difficulty. Older professors, especially, had a lot of resistance. In the last decade, however, the period-instrument approach has become more widely accepted. The audience in Japan is much more advanced now. They’re informed by CDs and DVDs, and they know very much about what’s going on in Europe and America.


Your singers are known for conveying a deep sense of the texts they perform. How do get them to do that?

I make all the translations of all the texts, then I try to get the singers informed about their context. For Japanese people, all kinds of parables in the New Testament are quite fresh. They have the translations in hand during the rehearsals and recording. Even the orchestra members.

Did they find it difficult to sing in German?

This was very challenging, at the beginning, especially. Sometimes we had to ask language coaches for help. Our record producers are Germans, so they could help, too. We are not trying to be German or imitate the German people. But pronunciation is a very important part of the expression, so it’s very important for us to get it as right as possible.

It’s unusual for us to hear back-to-back performances of the two Passions. Why did you decide to do something so ambitious?

It’s a practical reason -- we were supposed to perform three different programs, but the instrumental program was canceled. Still, it’s very interesting to play and listen to both Passions back to back.

Commentators note that each Passion represents a different view of Christ. “St. John” presents him as God’s agent to defeat the enemies of humanity. “St. Matthew” represents the sacrifice of the guiltless one for the guilty.

I agree with that. “St. John” presents the events at the cross of Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of God’s will and the prophecies of all the prophets. “St. Matthew” has a much more contemplative character. Both elements are necessary.


Do either of the Passions have special meaning for you?

It’s very exciting to perform the “St. Matthew Passion” now. It’s been performed many times in times of war. The first performance in Japan was just before World War II, led by Klaus Pringsheim, a German teacher and conductor who was against the Nazis and for this reason had to leave Japan. His last performance was the “St. Mathew Passion.” It’s not possible to explain what he thought at the time, of course, but I think it was a call for peace. From my point of view, it’s very providential that we’re going to perform it at this time.