Voices of Ascension *St John Passion,* Mar 9, 2023
Susie and I heard Voices of Ascension performing the Bach *St John Passion* on March 9, 2023. This is a piece I love - - it's an oratorio that tells the story of the last days of Jesus's life. I greatly prefer the St John to Bach's St Matthew Passion. The St John feels so much warmer and full of humanity, to me.
Things got off to a troubling start with the orchestral prelude. I had a hard time articulating the issue I had - - I let my mind wander and it reminded me of the opening of Charles Busch's *The Tale of the Allergist's Wife.* The play opens with the title character in her Upper East Side apartment. Her super has just installed a chandelier in the living room. The light comes on and she says (I'm paraphrasing), "I was looking for something with a Belle Époque kind of allure and opulence. This to me says Lighting Fixture."
The prelude to the first chorus in the St John should have grandeur and a deep sadness. The strings should have depth and sweep, the dissonances in the winds should illustrate the pain and the longing. The Voices of Ascension performance sounded like what Bach wrote for the orchestra before the chorus came in. Maybe this understated vibe is what conductor Dennis Keene was after, but it didn't work for me. And it wasn't just an issue of a wonky start - - the number is built so they do the first part, they do a contrasting second part, and then they go right back to the beginning and do the first part again. It sounded the same the second time. Thankfully that was my only issue with the performance, aside from a few quibbles about the soloists.
The chorus, as usual, was sublime. I always describe them as having "the sound of holiness." There's nothing like it.
The narrator for the story is a tenor called the Evangelist. This role was sung by Brian Giebler and holy crap he was amazing. He made a lot out of the words without going all Elisabeth Schwarzkopf on your ass. Here he is singing a couple of Baroque treasures in 2021. Wearing a mask! Ah, the memories...
The role of Jesus was sung by bass-baritone Matthew Curran. I wasn't happy with him, his sound was a little wild and wooly for my taste. I usually was able to discern what pitch he was singing but it shouldn't take so much effort or imagination.
The mezzo soprano soloist was Lucia Bradford and she was amazing - - gorgeous, rich, and elegant. She sang her second aria a marvelous mixture of regal bearing and moral outrage. I want to hear her in a Handel opera! Please.
The soprano soloist was Elisse Albian. She has a lovely voice, light and fragrant. I didn't care for what she did with her first aria. For me she needed more juice - - she sang it like a butterfly and I wanted her to be more like a goldfinch. She was more grounded and satisfying in her second aria.
The chorus has a multi-faceted role in this piece. Sometimes they're part of the story, playing the crowd speaking with Herod, calling for Jesus to be crucified. Sometimes they're a sort of Greek chorus, commenting on the action, sort of serving as the conscience of the piece. Most meaningfully, Bach wove eleven chorales into the piece, old Lutheran hymns set in a rather straightforward manner - - maybe some unexpected harmonies but no showy counterpoint or rhythmic variation, simply the chorus singing together like you would sing a hymn. You don't have to know these hymns (and I don't) to feel there's something very personal and meaningful being communicated. The chorales drive home the ritual element of the piece.
The tenor soloist was Andrew Stenson. He's given three arias while the other soloists only have two. Which you would think is an act of generosity on Bach's part, but I wonder! The first and third arias can be seen in the grand tradition of German tenor writing that followed Bach - - the nobility of Tamino in Mozart's *The Magic Flute* and sometimes the thrust of Wagner's Tannhäuser. Stenson sang these arias gloriously. He had a little trouble in the second aria but then Bach wrote it in a needlessly cruel way, the poor guy is often perched at the top of his voice and just stays there. Stenson sang it creditably but I really do wonder if Bach had a beef against the guy who he wrote it for.
The bass soloist, Jason Eck, had just the voice I wanted for the role of Jesus - - warm, sincere, and clear as a bell. His first aria has a fascinating orchestration (I think it was lute, flute, a couple strings) and his second aria is a marvel of composition, with him singing one thing and the chorus singing a chorale theme in the background.
Dennis Keene did a genius job of shaping the drama in the second half. Or maybe the genius was Bach's construction and Dennis beautifully conveyed it.
The piece ends with a chorale but the highlight of the piece is the chorus that precedes it, "Ruht wohl," aka rest well. Dennis conducted it with all of the warmth, depth, and sadness that it needed but also with a certain lightness. A lot of these Baroque forms are based in dances and Dennis's conception was a stately sort of dance.