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A passion for performance
Baroque music comes to Oxford

The Lenten musical composition "St. John's Passion" is considered one of the most memorable works of German composer Johann Sebastian Bach, whose large canon of religious and secular pieces has earned him a deserved lofty position in classical music circles around the globe.

The Lenten season is obviously the most opportune time to perform Bach's dramatic 1724 musical retelling of the Passion of Jesus Christ, and there will no doubt be many ensembles throughout the world showcasing the piece between now and Easter.

But few orchestras will present "St. John's Passion" in the same manner as the Atlanta-based New Trinity Baroque Orchestra, which celebrates its 10th anniversary in March and will perform what is often thought of as "Bach's Lenten masterpiece" at

3 p.m. March 2 at Allen Memorial United Methodist Church in Oxford.

"This performance is quite different from a regular 'St. John's Passion' performance in the 21st century," said Predrag Gosta, the founder and

artistic director of the New Trinity Baroque Orchestra. "We will try to recreate the original performance, and our ensemble will play on period instruments. We'll have baroque violins with gut strings and baroque bows and an arch lute and a viola da gamba."

Gosta added that while many "St. John's Passion" recitals include vocal soloists singing in German and a chorus, in Bach's day the soloists were also the chorus.

"Bach didn't distinguish between soloists and the chorale," he said. "We'll have nine soloists and they'll also be the chorus. Modern interpretations usually include a big choir."

In addition to the soloists, the Atlanta area's premier early music ensemble will feature an 11-piece orchestra, which Gosta said would have been considered quite a large group in the 17th and 18th centuries. Gosta added that he's spared no expense to find the best instrumentalists to perform "St. John's Passion," which the ensemble will also play March 1 at St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church in Northeast Atlanta.

"Seventeen of the 21 performers are coming from out of town," said Gosta, who also plays harpsichord and organ in the orchestra. "We're an international group - we'll have players from the United States, Mexico, Canada and Sweden. They've been hand-picked over the last 10 years to perform this piece. We don't compromise on any performance."

While the orchestra is well skilled with the works of Baroque composers like Handel, Mozart, Monteverdi and Vivaldi, Bach holds a special place in Gosta's heart.

"He is absolutely one of the most important composers of the 17th and 18th centuries," Gosta said. "His music is beautiful as well as challenging, and playing his music in the 21st century on modern instruments is an even bigger challenge. It's easier for us because we have period instruments, which is what the music was written for. We want to bring the true nature of the composer's vision to your ears. Our goal is to recreate the performance in the best possible scenario - the way the composer heard it."

After its debut in 1724 in Leipzig, Bach continued to tinker with "St. John's Passion" until his death in 1750. Gosta noted that the orchestra will be performing what he termed "Bach's attempt to create an ultimate score."

"Bach created several versions of the 'Passion,'" he said. "He only made minor revisions to the final score (in 1750), but the year before, he created what he felt was the score for the ultimate performance. It's the one he wanted and it's the one that we'll perform. We'll be trying to create the ultimate sound with the revisions he had."

The orchestra's performance of "St. John's Passion" won't be a complete by-the-numbers recital, Gosta said, as he's conscious of both the musical and performance aspects of the composition.

"Besides recreating great early music works, we're also known for putting our spirit into the performance," said Gosta, who also serves as the musical director and conductor of the Gwinnett

Ballet Theatre Orchestra and as president of the Early Music Network, an international early music society.

"Whether it's a recreation or not, the performance will tell if the piece is interesting or boring. Believe me, I've heard it before and there were several times when it bored me to death. So we want to be successful in creating exciting sounds, which is my pledge to everyone who attends the concert. We pay close attention to be as historically accurate as possible, but the spirit and excitement of the music will be appropriate. It has to move the audience, and I'll change and adapt the score in the spirit of the music."

A native of Serbia, Gosta and the orchestra are not strangers to Newton County. The New Trinity Baroque Orchestra has served as Ensemble in Residence at Oxford College since 2004 and has performed several times at Williams Hall on the Oxford College campus. Gosta will conduct the Oxford Chorale in a concert of 17th and 18th century composers on April 17 and 18 at the college.

The orchestra will also perform in Finland, Italy, Croatia, England and Serbia this year.

"We've played at Williams Hall before, but we wanted to get to the church because we anticipate there will be a huge interest in the

community and we want to

make sure they'll all have a seat," Gosta said. "This performance will also mark the 10th anniversary of our first concert, which is a big deal for us. We started slowly and we're blessed to be where we are now."

Chris Starrs is a freelance writer based in Athens. If you have a story idea, e-mail Karen Rohr, features editor, at karen.rohr@rockdalecitizen.com.

SideBar: If You Go

· What: Bach's "St. John's Passion," performed by the New Trinity Baroque Orchestra and presented by the Arts Association in Newton County, along with Ramsey Furniture Company

· When: 3 p.m. March 2

· Where: Allen Memorial Methodist Church, 803 Whatcoat St. in Oxford

· Cost: Tickets are $15 for adults, $12 for seniors and $8 for students and can be obtained by calling 770-786-8188 or by visiting www.newtoncountyarts.org.