An Interview with Director Rick Erickson

April 4, 2022

Podcast of this interview

MIKE: Deacon Rick Erickson is the Director of Bach Society Houston and Cantor at Christ the King Lutheran Church. He is also Instructor in music at the Shepherd School of Music, Rice University.

Next Sunday, Palm Sunday, April 10 and then Good Friday, April 15 you, Rick and the Bach Society will present the St. John Passion, which Bach wrote for a Good Friday service. I haven’t been in two years because of the pandemic and I’m so excited to go. 

When was the last time you did one of the Passions?

RICK: I think it’s been three years. We were going to put some Schütz in there. I think the St. Matthew Passion was the last one we did, about three years ago. So, we’ve missed it.

Deacon Rick Erickson

MIKE: I absolutely love the opening Herr, Unser Herrscher, with its undulating dissonances. Truly marvelous. So… Bach. What will make this performance different?

RICK: This is something that Madeleine Marshall and I and others have been working on for nearly four years, that is to produce an American English translation. Madeline has a long history of translation. I have spent my life working on Bach. The power of St. John’s Passion is sometimes in its immediacy. In Bach’s time, and when I watch a German audience hearing it now, St. John pulls right at the heart strings. It is full of chorales that everyone in Bach’s time would have known. It would have resonated.

The Matthew is longer in its forms.

The earlier English versions are all British-influenced, often flowery, but the German is immediate. It smacks you in the face. American English can too. Hearing this in Bach’s musical setting with American colloquial English is sometimes surprising, because we don’t have a translation we have to filter through. It’s right smack there in your face, so that’s what we’re doing. 

MIKE: I’m scared. It’s like hearing the Latin Mass in English for the first time. It’s based on Luther’s translation of John 18-19. Given Luther’s tectonic impact on the German language, is this a bit like translating Shakespeare into German? 

RICK: I don’t disagree with you. I’m terrified. I’ve lived with this long enough, I can hear people saying, “How dare you do this with Bach?” “How dare you question Bach?” We have struggled with that. How do you stay true to Bach’s original setting? Lot’s of challenges. Have we resolved everything? No. Have we tried to be true to the text? Yes. But yes, Mike, I’m terrified. 

MIKE: Tell me about this new English translation by Madeleine Marshall. I look up her name and found a Tasmanian Astrophysicist and a scholar who went to St. Olaf et al. I’m guessing it’s the latter.

RICK: If you look up Madeleine in the ELW (Evangelical Lutheran Worship), you will find a great number of hymn texts she has translated from Spanish and German. We are more familiar her than we realize. She began translating Bach when her husband was Assistant Pastor at Holy Trinity in New York, almost 50 years ago. That’s where I served too, and where our paths crossed. … Her command of German and her ear for music translation and of course her scholarship makes this excellent… We have workshopped this quite a lot. She has hewed close to the NRSV, which turns out to work well with Bach. Then, of course, many different sources for the choruses and solos.

MIKE: This Passion was originally written to have a sermon in the middle, so two and a half hours plus a sermon. And sermons in Bach’s day were not short. We’re not having a sermon, are we?

RICK: No, we are calling it an intermission. I’d ben interested to see how this would work with modern audiences. It certainly is a religious observance for many people. But no, no sermon.

MIKE: The Johannes-Passion, BWV 245, is the oldest of Bachs Passions, written during his first year as director of church music in Leipzig. It was first performed on Good Friday, April 7, 1724, nearly 300 years ago.

A native of Wisconsin, Rick holds degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Superior, from which he also received the Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2009, the Master of Music Degree in Organ Performance and Literature and the Performer’s Certificate from the Eastman School of Music, where he also served for four years on the faculty of Improvfest.

Rick has appeared as a conductor, church music lecturer, and hymn festival leader throughout the United States, and in Germany, Sweden, Australia and New Zealand. He has performed for conventions of the American Guild of Organists and the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians, among other music events.  He has recorded for Naxos, JV Recordings, and Media 1517.

Prior to coming to Houston, Rick served for 22 years as Director of the celebrated Bach Vespers series in New York. 

J.S. BACH, St. John Passion, BWV 245

Christ the King Lutheran Church
2353 Rice Boulevard, Houston

Palm Sunday, April 10, 2022 | 6:00-8:30 P.M. 
(Pre-concert talk by Madeleine Marshall at 5:15 P.M. in the Parish Hall)

Good Friday, April 15, 2022 | 3:00-5:30 P.M.

Rick Erickson, Conductor

Tony Boutté, tenor, Evangelist
Malcolm Merriweather, baritone, Jesus
Chris Besch, bass, Pilate
Ryland Angel, Countertenor

Bach Choir
Bach Orchestra