Voices of Ascension: St. John Passion, 3/30/17
I heard the Voices of Ascension perform Bach's *St. John Passion* on 3/30/17. My first experience with this piece was in the spring of 1988, when I sang it with UW Madison's Choral Union. I was kinda sorta dating a girl at the time, yes, a biological female, an acerbic Jewish girl from New Jersey named Sarah Goldberg. I think we were both in love with her old boyfriend Aaron Kase, and dating each other seemed like a viable substitute to being with him. I'm sure this is the plot of an independent movie and/or episode of a sitcom from the 90s. Anyway, I told Sarah I was singing this piece, and since I wasn't sure she was familiar with Bach in particular or Christian terminology in general, I asked her, "Do you know what a Passion is?" She gave me her best come hither stare and said, "I know it when I feel it."
So. Bach wrote two Passions, this one and the *St. Matthew Passion.* I greatly prefer the St. John, it's warmer, more human, and also (it must be said) shorter. Voices of Ascension, of course, did it gloriously, it was meaningful and majestic and sublime. Everything you want from a Passion (or a passion, for that matter).
Tenor Derek Chester gets highest marks as the best Evangelist I've ever heard. He's the narrator of the story, and sings as much as all the other singers put together, basically. He sang with drama and precise, detailed expression of the text, but he was still freaking SINGING. I heard hot shot English tenor Ian Bostridge sing the Evangelist in the St. Matthew a few years ago and hated his interpretation. Hated it! He wasn't just mannered, he was Miss Manners. Yes, German is a language with lots of consonants, but they throw in a nice vowel now and then, why not phonate a little. Anyway, Chester was nothing like that, he sang the role with grace and deep, satisfying musicianship.
Sarah Shafer sang the soprano arias, she was lovely, such a pure voice, but still warm and rich, just exactly what you want in Bach. Gene Stenger Did an impressive job with the tenor arias, which have a relentlessly high tessitura. His second aria, in particular, is demanding and not very gratifying, but Stenger was more than equal to the challenge. This guy needs to play Belmonte in *Abduction from the Seraglio,* if he hasn't already.
The musical high points of the piece are the opening chorus and the closing chorus and closing chorale. I was expecting those to be incredible, and they were. The surprise of this performance was a bass arioso, "Betrachte, meine Seel." It was delicate and hypnotic, with some strange harmonic shifts. It took my breath away, and Alan Dunbar sang it beautifully.