Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Bach's St. John Passion from a minimalist Musica Angelica

Musica Angelica at First Methodist Church, Santa Monica
Photo: Laura Spino

Bach: St John Passion
Musica Angelica - Martin Haselböck, conductor
First United Methodist Church of Santa Monica
Sunday, March 28, 2010, 4 pm

by Rodney Punt

For Musica Angelica, L.A.’s homegrown, often cash-strapped early music ensemble, necessity can be the mother of a two-part invention. Or, in the case of J.S. Bach’s St. John Passion, an eight-person chorus. Mind you, the choristers had other responsibilities. They were also the soloists.

The “historically informed ensemble” backed up their slender choral department with no less than nineteen “authentic original and recreated instruments of the Baroque era.” The imbalance between singers and instrumentalists was a measure of the organization’s musical priorities in our current era of limits.

Under the direction of music director Martin Haselböck, the intrepid band and its outmatched choir took on the profound rigors of Bach’s “other” passion in a performance that was probably not far off the skimpily complemented one Bach had to cobble together for its premiere at his "other" church, the St. Nikolas in Leipzig. I caught Musica Angelica’s second performance in the cavernous First Methodist Church of Santa Monica on Sunday afternoon.

Like the St. Matthew, its more famous apostolic sibling, the St. John is both overtly dramatic and inwardly pietistic in its ritual story telling of the betrayal and death of Jesus of Nazareth. Dramatic narration is alternated with contemporary reflections in the chorales, emphasizing personal responsibility for human sin. Modern performances face the squeamish issue of frequent reference to Jewish culpability in the death of Jesus, but it seems in his setting, Bach, more than his most of his contemporaries, focused the guilt and potential for salvation on all humanity.

In the performance, the eight singers were more effective as soloists than as a pick-up choir. A ninth singer, tenor Tilman Lichdi, assigned the heavy load of the Evangelist role along with most of the tenor arias, was relieved of choir duties altogether. Lichdi, in fact, made the strongest impression of the day, easily essaying the stratospheric demands of his narration as well as the impassioned reflections of arias like Ach, mein Sinn (Ah, my soul).

Michael Dean’s deep, oaken-hued baritone gave spiritual authority to the relatively small role of Jesus. Just the kind of fellow you want around for heavenly hosting, it was a pity his only other task was choral singing. He would have been far better employed in the bass arias assigned to Scott Graff, whose unfocused baritone never found a vocal footing that afternoon.

Ian Howell’s light countertenor was pretty in the sparsely accompanied numbers like Es ist vollbracht (It is accomplished) but overbalanced by the oboes and other instruments in Von den Stricken meiner Sünden (From the bonds of my sins). Soprano Mary Wilson dissolved some afternoon hearts with her aria, Zerfliesse, mein Herz. The rest of the soloists dispatched their duties adequately.

As suggested before, the main problem with the performance was in the balance between choral and instrumental forces. In this struggle, clear enunciation was not helped by the peculiar acoustics of First Methodist Church. It is one of those halls where the message comes over loud but not clear. The room favors the mid and lower sound spectrum to the detriment of higher ranges. This tends to favor tonal vowels over message-defining consonants.

Add to this factor an instrumental ensemble that, for all its historic veracity in lighter textured colors, puts out quite a voluminous orchestral blanket, more so in this hall. Even when the skimpy choir is placed in front of the band, as in Sunday’s configuration, it was difficult to hear the story mid all the musical fury.

Haselböck led the combined forces - the above balance issue notwithstanding - with his customary stylish attention to detail, moving the proceedings along at a proper Baroque lilt. Notable was his handling of the dramatic moments, often with complex choral counterpoint, in such numbers as Bist du nicht seiner Jünger einer? (Are you not one of his disciples?) and the wonderful melismatic moments in Pontius Pilate’s scourges and Peter’s denial music shortly thereafter.

Quite apart from the performance, it was instructive to be exposed once again to the theology behind the music drama of Bach’s passion settings. The moral message in his time was not to point historical blame without reflecting on contemporary personal responsibility. How different in tone from the finger-pointing whining that passes for Christian behavior in so many regions of our country today.

Where’s the humility? Where’s the humanity? Listen to Bach.


Joseph Mailander said...

"...its more famous apostolic sibling..."

I might quietly quibble with that. I think Matthew and John are evangelical siblings with certitude, but it is questionable whether or not they are also apostolic siblings. While John was certainly an evangelist as was Matthew, many think he is not the same John who was one of the twelve chosen.

TomTallis said...

We had the pleasure of hearing Musica Angelica in the St Matthew Passion at the Musikvereinsgebäude in Vienna a couple of years ago. In that performance, Hasselböck used an ensemble drawn from the Arnold Schönberg Choir. The performance was excellent except for the baritone that sang the part of Jesus who seemed overparted.

Rodney Punt said...

Thanks for your observations Joe and Ken. What a privilege to hear Musica Angelica in the Musikverein!