`Passion' of Bach soars in Annapolis

Concert: The oratorio based on John's Gospel takes flight in a highly moving performance.

Review

Howard Live

March 25, 2004|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

J. Ernest Green's Annapolis Chorale and Chamber Orchestra presented Johann Sebastian Bach's deeply devotional monumental oratorio St. John Passion on Saturday at Saint Anne's Episcopal Church in Annapolis.

Performing the work in German, music director Green added historic authenticity by presenting Bach's oratorio much as it was originally done at Saint Thomas Church in Leipzig, Germany, where it was first performed in 1724.

Green invited the audience to sing certain passages along with chorale members who were seated in the side sections of the church. The chamber chorus sang at the altar with the orchestra. Alternately, six soloists sang at the front of the altar.

Bach portrays the Gospel of John with piety and high drama, describing the betrayal, arrest, condemnation, crucifixion and burial of Jesus. Bach made the Passion relevant to his contemporaries by placing them in the action as participants -- a device that continues to work remarkably well today.

Not only was Bach innovative in how he involved his audience, he was also ahead of his time in creating an opening orchestral segment that in its dissonance remains appropriate to contemporary sensibilities.

With its powerful story, Bach's majestic work is also a profound religious experience. Divided into two parts, the narrative is sung in recitative by the narrator Evangelist with quotations from Jesus, Pontius Pilate and others in arias and choruses.

On Saturday, the opening chorus "Herr, unser Herrscher, dessen Ruhm allen Landen" ("Lord, our ruler, whose fame is glorious throughout all lands") was sung with compelling intensity and conviction by the chamber chorus, signaling what was to follow. The German language added to the purity and power of the work, and according to my German-speaking companion was nearly flawless as performed by soloists and the chamber chorus.

Most crucial is the tenor's performance in the demanding role of the Evangelist, and Andre Bierman displayed vocal beauty and agility, along with high drama, as he invested the role with heartfelt emotion and profound sincerity.

Jonathan Deutsch sang the role of Jesus, conveying immense dignity in his sonorous bass that lent enormous power to the role, intensely moving in words to his mother, Mary, "Weib, siehe, das ist dein Sohn" ("Woman, behold thy son"), and in his "Es ist vollbracht" ("It is finished").

Baritone Stephen Markuson was spellbinding as Pilate, giving proper intonation and dramatic power to the words "Was ich geschrieben habe, das habe ich geschrieben" ("What I have written, I have written") in his memorable performance.

Mezzo-soprano Susan Fleming sang a touchingly expressive aria, "My Savior is bound," and soprano Krista Adams-Santilli was equally moving in "I follow you also with joyful steps."

Tenor John Artzin's "Ach, mein Sinn" ("O my reason") impressed in his first Bach oratorio, making us look forward to his future appearances.

In all aspects, this St. John Passion was a deeply moving performance that richly deserved the warm ovation it received. As we left the church, an audience member remarked, "Mel Gibson could never give us a Passion like this," to which another added, "Amen."

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