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I was really looking forward to Bach’s St. John Passion

The last month has been a gut check for everyone, and keeping perspective on what’s important gets us through another surreal day. Before the coronavirus upended our lives, I was like everyone else: going out to dinner, seeing friends, attending arts and sporting events, and hoping my job would hold.

Now, we’re sequestering, and living in suspension. Those Florida Orchestra concerts I so looked forward to at this time have been silenced – one in particular – although this seems minor compared to what’s happening around us.

Last summer, Music Director Michael Francis and I chatted about the 2019/20 season and at the end of our conversation he asked me, “What program are you most looking forward to?’’

I didn’t hesitate. “The Bach,’’ I told him. “The St. John Passion holds a special place.’’

I adore Bach, and his Passions, B Minor Mass and cantatas stay forever close. So when the orchestra scheduled St. John, it became a centerpiece for the year. It also was the first major work performed by the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay, back in 1979, and this month’s canceled performance would have been TFO’s premiere.

“This is a piece I’ve been wanting to conduct all my life,’’ Francis said before the concerts were pulled. “And it completes the Easter season, so it’s a great time to reflect on this wonderful music. It has this operatic sense of drama, but it’s within a glorious, controlled maturity.’’

But the Bach didn’t happen, nor will a much-awaited version in April of Vivaldi’s popular The Four Seasons, with Concertmaster Jeffrey Multer at the helm. Fact is, nobody really knows when the orchestra will take the stage again, and this creates a big hole in the area’s cultural life.

This is more than just missing live orchestral music. The majority of performing arts groups in the United States operate with very little, if any, fat on the budget. This highly contagious virus has forced them to draw the curtain, essentially plugging the flow of box office cash. One or two months will be difficult to weather, but “if this goes on for six months, then all bets are off,’’ Michael M. Kaiser, former president of the Kennedy Center, told the Washington Post. “Then I think we’re really starting the arts ecology over.”

Ticket sales account for about 40 percent of TFO’s operating budget, so putting the music on any extended hold will create a vacuum. The group can’t recoup that lost money, so they will depend on the generosity – and forward thinking – of patrons to contribute extra to avoid potential crisis. The uncertainty of the weeks  that follow will require additional donations to keep the state’s largest performing arts organization in tune.

In the 40-odd years I’ve been covering TFO and attending its concerts, I can count on a couple of fingers when they’ve had to cancel concerts. But this is different. The orchestra has left the stage not because of any kind of woes, but to help protect the health of our community.

That means listening in isolation, and if there’s a positive side to any of this, it’s the time spent with these missed programs – on recordings. This includes the St. John Passion in a 1979 archive recording on three LPs by the Regensburger Domspatzen under the direction of Hanns-Martin Schneidt. The period-style ensemble and 25-member boy chorus create an intimate atmosphere full of contrasting light and shade, each syllable and phrase as clear as crystal. The music opens like a ghost ascending: turbulent semiquavers in the strings, a nervous pulse in the bass, and a lament of rising oboes and flutes. The effect – Bach’s miracle of blending grief and hope – is chilling, and sets the tone for the entire piece. It’s two hours well spent.

But I’m hoping I won’t be listening to recordings of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in May, when the orchestra is scheduled to perform it live. Whenever the orchestra is back on stage, it will feel good to stand up and applaud again.

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