With a biblical text, a choir and a congregation invited to sing along, Sunday's performance of St. Matthew Passion by J.S. Bach dances on the often blurry line between performance and worship.
"For me, it's a friendly crossover," says Henry Engbrecht, founding conductor of Canzona, Winnipeg's baroque choir.
"We talk about performance, we don't talk about it as a worship service, but we're aware of it as a spiritual journey."
Engbrecht leads Canzona in the musical retelling of Jesus Christ's journey to the cross at 6 p.m. Sunday, April 13 at Westminster United Church, 745 Westminster Ave. It will be on Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week when Christians remember the life and death of Christ.
"We know that people who are drawn to it will be there, where the message of St. Matthew Passion will be strengthened and enriched through the music," says Engbrecht, 74, who conducts Canzona for the final time Sunday after 25 years with the choir.
Engbrecht will invite the audience to join the 27-voice choir in singing several chorales in the oratorio, as a way to engage listeners with the music, following last year's successful sing-along during Canzona's performance of Bach's St. John Passion. The performance also includes the Winnipeg Boys Choir and orchestral accompaniment by MusikBarock.
"I want to reassure them they can sing German in any dialect or English will do," he says of the chorales, which will be printed in the concert program and rehearsed with the audience just before the concert.
"The experience last year was amazing and the audience response was beyond our expectations."
Often called Bach's masterpiece, the nearly three-hour sacred oratorio composed in 1727 was intended for Good Friday services, and later moved into concert venues, says Dietrich Bartel, church history professor at Canadian Mennonite University.
"Because of the requirements for the orchestra, it's an expensive thing to put on, and it's long," says Bartel, also organist at All Saints Anglican Church, located at the corner of Broadway and Osborne Street.
Bartel led his choir in a three-hour Good Friday vigil of music, readings and silence, featuring cantatas Dietrich Buxtehude on Good Friday.
For Anglican priest John Wortley, Bach's setting of the betrayal, suffering and crucifixion of Jesus Christ, based on accounts found in the Gospel of Matthew, is intense and demanding for both singers and the audience.
"I find it profoundly moving, both personally and spiritually," says Wortley, a retired medieval studies professor who wrote the program notes for the concert.
"In a word, it's what Holy Week is all about."
A churchgoer himself, Engbrecht knows the performance of St. Matthew Passion can affect the audience in many ways and his role is to guide them through the experience.
"When you brush with great art, the greatness of the music, the power of the music hits you on the chest and it makes you listen in a different way," says Engbrecht, who has conducted church, community and university choirs for the past 55 years.
Understanding where the line falls between performance and worship fascinates Bartel, both as a church musician and an academic. He says the answer probably lies with the individual listener.
"For one person it will be an interesting aural experience and for another it will be a significant spiritual experience," says Bartel.
"It's like listening to opera. You don't make the opera story your own story, but you still go."