Composer Sally Beamish and librettist David Harsent have written a retelling of the biblical Passion story from the point of view of the man who betrayed Jesus. The Judas Passion has its U.S. premiere performances this week with Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale (the world premiere was by the co-commissioning Orchestra for the Age of Enlightenment in the U.K. last month.) And next Tuesday night, Beamish and another influential contemporary composer, Caroline Shaw will take part in a PBO Sessions event called New Music for Old Instruments, hosted by KDFC’s own Dianne Nicolini.
You can find out more about the concerts at the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra website.
Eleven years ago, PBO music director Nicholas McGegan suggested to Beamish that she write a Passion, and the idea appealed to her. “I was interested in doing something about Peter, who denied Christ three times, and yet was the rock on which the church was founded. And you know, then thinking about, well, how come Judas never gets forgiven? How come he gets to be the scapegoat, the bad guy, for all eternity, when Peter also betrayed Christ?” Librettist Harsent chose to tell the story using the voices of Jesus, Judas, and Mary Magdalene. The other major characters are sung from within the chorus, which sometimes acts narratively, like a Greek chorus. The fundamental question, Beamish says, is whether one chooses, or is chosen to play one’s life role. “Did Judas decide that he was going to betray Christ… and is this something he did out of badness, or was it something that he did to fulfil a prophecy? Did he hear the voice of god, did he hear the voice of the devil? Did the devil go into Judas, and if so, why didn’t Jesus cast out the devil again? You know, how come this was all Judas’s fault?” In addition to Baroque strings, which she had written for before, Beamish wrote the work for natural horns and trumpets, harpsichord and chamber organ, lute, and percussion, which added in a new instrument: a chime made up of “30 pieces of silver,” the amount of payment Judas received for his betrayal. “And then at the moment when Judas gives back the money, he throws it back, the chime is actually dropped,” Beamish says. “And that is quite a heart-stopping moment.”