Tuesday, April 15, 2003

Rare Bach piece is a treat

CCO and soloists master emotion of 'St. John's Passion'

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Of J.S. Bach's five known Passions - a musical setting of the Crucifixion story - only two survive. On Sunday afternoon in St. Peter in Chains Cathedral, Cincinnatians were treated to a rare performance of St. John's Passion, one of just a handful of local performances in the last three decades. (The concert was to repeat Monday evening in Greaves Hall at Northern Kentucky University.)

It was a unique, and in many ways visionary, endeavor that brought together the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra, the Vocal Arts Ensemble of Cincinnati (Earl Rivers, director) and an array of excellent soloists from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. On the podium was CCO music director Mischa Santora, an alert leader who propelled his forces energetically and with a high degree of sensitivity.

St. John Passion was the first large-scale vocal work that Bach composed for his church post at Leipzig in 1724. Of its four versions, the last (1749) is considered the most "definitive," and it was the one performed on Sunday. (However, the program had two tenor arias from another version.)

More than 800 listeners streamed into the cathedral for the Palm Sunday concert. Santora's tempos flowed well, and he sustained the emotional buildup from beginning to end. The well-prepared chorus projected a radiant presence in Bach's extraordinary chorales, which provided moments of serene contemplation between those of high drama.

If one soloist is to be singled out, it is Michael Slattery as the Evangelist, a superb tenor with a pure, expressive voice who communicated the difficult role with warmth, ardor and stunning intonation. Slattery, a former student of CCM professor David Adams (who sang the tenor arias), is clearly an artist to watch.

The other soloists were communicative and fresh. Adams brought distinction to his arias, from the agitated "Ach, mein Sinn" to his majestic arioso, "Mein Herz." As Jesus, David Lemly projected compassion, warmth and, finally, resignation with a firm, focused baritone. Arturo Chacon's view of Pilate was powerful and dramatic.

The orchestra, augmented by the early instruments oboe d'amore, oboe da caccia and viola da gamba, rose to the score's challenges, with expressive contributions from the winds during arias. One of the high points was the alto aria "Es ist vollbracht!" (It is accomplished), beautifully sung by Soon Cho, enhanced by viola da gamba accompaniment (James Lambert).

Soprano Tina Milhorn navigated her high-flying aria, "Zerfliesse, mein Herze" (Dissolve then, my heart), and bass Dong-Geun Kim handled the florid passages of "Eilt, ihr angefochtenen Seelen" (Hurry, you tormented souls) impressively. For the recitatives, harpsichordist Heather MacPhail, Lambert (bass) and Patrick Binford (cello) provided continuo.

The only difficulty arose, mainly for the listener, in the cathedral's reverberant acoustics. In the opening chorus, "Herr, unser Herrscher" (Lord, our Master), all clarity was lost in a sea of notes. (I moved closer for Part II.) Despite that, Santora expertly balanced the forces, and the orchestra never overpowered the singers.

The polished chorus was a joy, whether injecting drama as the frenzied mob, shaping the chorales with tenderness or singing the great opening and concluding choruses magnificently.

E-mail jgelfand@enquirer.com

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