I don’t remember the last time I heard the Los Angeles Master Chorale have a less-than-impressive performance, let alone a bad day. It’s had to happen; the group is only human, after all.
The Master Chorale has a long and distinguished history, but ever since Grant Gershon took over as Music Director in 2001, its consistency over a diverse repertoire has been remarkable. Their latest endeavor had them giving two performances of Bach’s St. John Passion just in time for Holy Week. On Saturday night, they were terrific once again, and a capacity crowd at Walt Disney Concert Hall enthusiastically took it all in.
Mr. Gershon led a reduced contingent of forty singers in a moderately paced performance, full of interesting details. He generally honored baroque sensitivities without slavishly trying to imitate period practices, though the sounds of the Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra certainly helped to bridge the gap.
Showcasing the depth of the organization, Mr. Gershon used a different member of the Master Chorale for each of the titled characters and other solos. Pablo Corá was a bright-sounding, no-nonsense, and dispassionate Evangelist. In contrast, Scott Graff was a complex, melancholy Jesus, clearly weary of the path he was treading.
The remaining solos were all sung capably, but a few stood out above the rest:
- Claire Fedoruk, soprano, with a beautiful, fluid, and nuanced aria
- Daniel Chaney, tenor, was earnest and heart-wrenching
- John Lee Keenan, tenor, haunting in his aria about Jesus’ blood-stained back
- Janelle DeStefano, mezzo-soprano, sounding flawless through some tricky vocal runs and lovely throughout
- And an extra notch above everyone else in pretty much every way . . . Elissa Johnston, soprano
As has been typical, blend within each of the sections was amazingly good, and the punch with which they sang Kreuzige, kreuzige! (Crucify Him, Crucify Him!) was attention grabbing without being over-the-top. The orchestra had its own opportunities to strut its period instrument stuff, with different groupings of instrumentalists adding texture and some extra tanginess to the various solo arias.
If I were to nitpick, I’d have liked a little more emotional contrast between some of the choruses. I also might wish that Mr. Corá didn’t fade out at the end of an occasional vocal line. That said, these are minor trifles. In the end, nothing diminished from a thoroughly enjoyable and touching performance.
Random other thoughts:
- Given Ms. Johnston’s notable solo career, it seems almost unfair to compare her to the other talented members of the Master Chorale, but she is listed on the official roster as having one (1) year of tenure in the group, so I included her as such. That said, not all soloists make willing — or even good — chorus members, so credit should be given to her for vocally blending in with her colleagues. Perhaps credit should also be given to Mr. Gershon (AKA Ms. Johnston’s husband) for successfully recruiting her into the role. On the other hand, considering he’s been Music Director for over ten years and this is only the first year she’s been a member, perhaps not.
- The program notes by Thomas May took the controversial issue of anti-Semitic interpretations of John’s Gospel head on with this sidebar:
Is the St. John Passion Anti-Semitic?
In recent years, this troubling question has become part of the debate around the legacy and interpretation of the SJP. The issue involves John’s portrayal of the Jews in his Gospel narrative, particularly as reflected in the German translation by the notoriously anti-Semitic Martin Luther which Bach set to music. As musicologist Michael Steinberg aptly observes, Bach “could not very well choose to edit or censor the text of the Gospel.” Some performances of the SJP in English attempt to glide over the issue by explicitly substituting the word “people” for “the Jews.” Yet according to Michael Marissen in his classic study of this question from 1998,Lutheranism, Anti-Judaism, and Bach’s St. John Passion, Bach implicitly accomplishes what amounts to the same strategy by introducing reflective moments into the non-scriptural commentaries that are meant to shift the blame for Jesus’ death to all of humanity.
- The English supertitles seemed more than typically thorough, and for someone who doesn’t speak much Deutsche, they were appreciated. There were at least a couple of typos, most notably that Jesus was pierced with a “favelin” [sic], though I’m a bit surprised it doesn’t happen more often.
- There was a more than typically broad range of audience attire Saturday night. Along with the typical suits & ties, dresses & skirts of all lengths, and blazers over jeans, were a fairly large number of shorts and t-shirts. Go figure.
Los Angeles Master Chorale: March 31, 2012; Walt Disney Concert Hall
Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra (Martin Haselböck, Music Director)
Grant Gershon, conductor
Bach: St. John Passion
Cast (in order of appearance)
- Pablo Corá, tenor: Evangelist
- Scott Graff, bass: Jesus
- Hayden Eberhart, soprano: Maid
- Melvir Ausente, bass: Peter
- Brandon Hynum, tenor: Servant
- Gregory Geiger, bass: Pilate
Other solo recitatives & arias (in order of appearance)
- Niké St. Clair, mezzo-soprano: 7. Von den Stricken meiner Sünden (Of the bonds of my sins)
- Claire Fedoruk, soprano: 9. Ich folge dir gleichfalls mit freudigen Schritten (I follow you likewise with joyful steps)
- Daniel Chaney, tenor: 13. Ach, mein Sinn (Ah, my soul)
- Reid Bruton, bass: 19. Betrachte, meine Seel, mit ängstlichem Vergnügen (Consider, my soul, with anxious delight)
- Jon Lee Kennan, tenor: 20. Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken (Consider how His blood-stained back)
- Steve Pence, bass: 24. Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen (Hurry, you tormented souls)
- Janelle DeStefano, mezzo-soprano: 30. Es ist vollbracht! (It is finished!)
- Vincent Robles, baritone: 32. Mein teurer Heiland, laß dich fragen (My dear Savior, let me ask You)
- Pablo Corá, tenor: 34. Mein Herz, in dem die ganze Welt bei Jesu Leiden gleichfalls leidet (My heart, while the whole world suffers as Jesus suffers)
- Elissa Johnston, soprano: 35. Zerfließe, mein Herze, in Fluten der Zähren (Dissolve, my heart, in floods of tears)
Image credit: Deposition from the Cross (1634), Rembrandt Van Rijn (Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Bavaria, Germany)