"Artist Finds Look For Bach's Music" Atlanta Journal Constitution - by Pierre Ruhe
About three years ago, a small group of Atlanta symphony leaders was brainstorming around a conference table with New York artist Anne Patterson. She's designed sets for opera - mostly new or rare works performed in funky locations like the Aspen Music Festival or the Brooklyn Academy of Music - and, even more unusually, she's created visual installations for orchestras.
They were searching the long-range calendar for a concert that begged for a deluxe, multimedia treatment.
When talk turned to Johann Sebastian Bach's anguished, sublime and troubled "St. John" Passion - a lifelong obsession for music director Robert Spano - he thumped his finger on the table: "That's the one!"
In the years since, Spano and Patterson have discussed Bach's deeply reverent retelling of the Passion of Christ. They have debated everything from the role of Evangelist John, sung by a tenor, who narrates the tale - the pair sees the narrator as a sort of spiritual kin to a conductor, who spreads the Gospel of the great creator Bach - to the divinity/mortality of Jesus, a bass, who reacts like a man to the crowd's bloodthirsty cries of "Crucify!"
Separately, Spano delved deep into the printed score while Patterson painted watercolors as she listened to Passion recordings, "drawing what the music sounds like to me," as she puts it.
They also spent time gently prodding what Patterson - a low-key, 40 something woman with an architecture degree from Yale - mischievously calls "the Sound God" in Atlanta Symphony Hall.
In January, Patterson visited Atlanta for hands-on discussions. She'd planned an overall visual scheme (with lighting designer Matt Frey) plus a few pieces of scenery, several long silk banners stained blood-red and, as a sort of centerpiece suspended above the stage, a large fabric sculpture, covered in silver dots - an abstract, inexplicit object that catches the eye and could be a representation of the Holy Ghost - or not.
Her concept for the Passion wouldn't offer literal images or attempt to compete for attention with the music but, true to Patterson's style, let the musical ideas and emotions spill over into a visual medium.
Sound engineers, however, determined that "soft goods" - anything that absorbs sound - must be used sparingly, if at all, in Symphony Hall, which can wreak havoc with acoustics.
"If you're going to try something artistically new and different," Patterson says, "everyone needs to compromise a little. It has to be give-and-take. But I can't blame the ASO musicians for an entrenched position: In that room, you have to honor the sound - or else."
The ASO's "St. John" Passion will cost about $50,000, with scenery built by the Alliance Theatre crew and special stage lights rented from the Atlanta Opera.
Aware of the sometimes fierce arguments over the anti-Semitism of the "St. John" Passion - an uneasy undertow to the universal beauty and logic of Bach's music - Spano and Patterson looked to address the controversy head-on, possibly putting the performers in modern street clothes (representing Everyman) and somhow integrating a cross and a Star of David. But the idea felt forced, so they dropped it - a case where conductor and artist felt comfortable exploring potentially risky ideas.
Several years ago, Spano wondered aloud whether Patterson could find a place with the ASO, maybe as official "scenic designer," adding visual touches - sometimes subtle, sometimes assertive - to certain concerts, or to select pieces within otherwise traditional performances. For lack of money and widespread interest in upgrading the concert hall experience, however, the plan has yet to jell.