Sunday, April 1, 2012

L. A. Master Chorale performs Bach's St. John Passion

by Douglas Neslund

The 38-year old Johann Sebastian Bach composed his St. John Passion (BWV 245) in 1724 as the crowning work of his first year as Kantor of Thomaskirche in Leipzig (currently celebrating its 800th year since its founding in 1212). The Los Angeles Master Chorale, together with twelve soloists drawn from the Chorale and the Los Angeles-based period instrument ensemble Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra, performed the work in Walt Disney Concert Hall over the Palm Sunday weekend.

Forty voices of such professional amplitude were about eight voices too many for the much weaker Baroque instruments in the Passion’s choruses, an imbalance that persisted throughout the performance. Bach’s genius for writing an appropriate instrumental texture beneath and sometimes surrounding the vocal artists was therefore too often lost. Maestro Grant Gershon, standing on the conductor’s podium, may not have heard how unbalanced the sound really was. By stark contrast, the orchestra was well heard in the many solo arias, and played to their usual stylistic best.

Other than the choral-orchestral imbalance, the performance went very well indeed. There are perhaps only a few choral ensembles in the world that can draw twelve soloists from its own ranks and deliver on virtually every one, but the Master Chorale did just that. Past local performances of the St. John Passion have not been numerous, but a memory of some brings to mind a series of vocal mismatches, bleats and woofy production, as various chorus members attempted a brief moment in the public spotlight. Such was clearly not the case here.

From the outset, Niké St. Clair’s mezzo soprano aria “Von den Stricken meiner Sünden,” sung with gorgeous tone and unusually clear German text delivery to Elissa Johnston’s soaring soprano aria “Zerfließe, mein Herze” with a beautifully burnished, triumphant legato delivery, the standard was definitely set at high bar. In between appeared the following (in order):
  • Bass Scott Graff as the voice of Jesus. Mr.Graff’s voice is more commanding of attention, especially given his physical size, and he might have used a bit more fierce strength to better effect in his otherwise fine portrayal.
  • Soprano Claire Fedoruk sang “Ich folge dir gleichfalls” with perhaps a touch too much “hey, look me over” theatrics but with an engagingly naïve boy soprano-like clarity and charm.
  • Soprano Hayden Eberhart as the Maid, Bass Melvir Ausente as Peter, and Tenor Brandon Hynum as the Servant performed Peter’s brief scene denying any association with Jesus.
  • Tenor Daniel Chaney in “Ach, mein Sinn” sang with all the drama the text requires, delivered with a most effective heartfelt urgency.
  • Bass Gregory Geiger, in the role of Pilate, used his rich voice to convey Pilate’s ambivalent commitment to ordering Jesus crucified.
  • Bass Reid Bruton in “Betrachte meine Seele” displayed the most authentic bass voice among so many others, with beautiful tone and fine textual clarity.
  • Tenor Jon Lee Keenan in “Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken” sang with unfettered ease throughout the wide-ranging aria, and should one day take on the role of Evangelist.
  • Bass-Baritone Steve Pence performed “Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen” with an overtone-rich voice that is both musical and pleasing.
  • Mezzo Soprano Janelle DeStefano in “Es ist vollbracht!” (more on this below)
  • Bass Vincent Robles in “Mein teurer Heiland” performed with a plangent and pleasantly open vocal technique.
  • Tenor Pablo Corá in “Mein Herz, in dem die ganze Welt” (more below)

The wealth of vocal talent on display certainly did not deplete the talent reserve of others sitting in the chorus, as many who have soloed in the past gave their utmost support. The only weakness in this chorus of 40 was a persistently wobbly soprano voice heard in quieter moments that had the tendency to compromise an otherwise solid section sound, obviously a vocal technical issue.

Ms. DeStefano’s performance of “Es ist vollbracht!,” the Passion’s primary point of focus, was truly exceptional. One wonders if a better unity could have been achieved had she stood near or next to the gambist who accompanied her, Joshua Lee, as the space between them seemed to work against optimal collaboration. Still, their delivery of this key moment was beautifully carried off, and superior to most other performances elsewhere. Throughout the Passion, Maestro Gershon kept the motion leaning forward, except after this aria, when he allowed a moment or two of reflective pause.

Mr. Corá was, once again, challenged by the role of Evangelist-Narrator, which serves as the lynchpin for the entire work. It is a role that demands much from whomever might get the assignment: a wide range of both notes and expression that eluded Mr. Corá in the lower one-third range and in some of the dialogue where too much expression meant losing the story line. Those who have observed and enjoyed the Master Chorale over the years know what an excellent musician Mr. Corá is, and appreciate the challenge of this Passion as well as the St. Matthew Passion of recent seasons.

Musica Angelica is populated with such excellent musicians, it is difficult to single out anyone for special notice, but surely the continuo comprised of organist Ian Pritchard, violonist Denise Brisé, cellist Ezra Seltzer and the aforementioned Joshua Lee, deserve high praise.


NOTE: The printed program stated that Musica Angelica's cellist was Tanya Tomkins. After posting the review, LA Opus learned that there was a last-minute substitution of Tomkins by cellist Ezra Seltzer. Brought to our attention initially by a reader, the substitution was later confirmed by staff from Musica Angelica. The text above has been corrected.

Photos: Los Angeles Master Chorale and Wikipedia Commons, with permission.


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure if the information in the program was wrong, but the gamba soloist was Josh Lee, not David Morris, and the principal cellist was Ezra Seltzer. David Morris did not perform in this concert. My wife was in the audience and alluded to additional inaccuracies in the personnel list.

Anonymous said...

Thank you

Douglas Neslund said...

Thank you, Anonymous, for the correction. I have edited the review now to reflect proper attribution, which I am pleased to do.