Our 2016 performance of Bach’s monumental St. John Passion is now a very powerful memory. I’ve gotten some feedback from family and friends, and they all seem unanimous with the audience, which quickly rose in a lavish ovation the moment Greg acknowledged Thomas Cooley, as the applause began at the conclusion of the performance. His was the most dramatically and musically committed performance of that challenging role that I’ve seen in my lifetime. The variety of colors, inflections, dynamics, emotional temperatures, and artistic nuances he brought to every bit of text and every scene of the work was simply astounding. As I noted earlier, I think most of us are accustomed to a more omniscient evangelist-cum-narrator, which is, in a way, the safer route. The role is set in a punishing part of the tenor’s range, and one must take great care to preserve one’s voice through a performance that’s going to include a lot of singing. Thomas held back a little bit in rehearsal, and his singing in performance was a revelation. I remember writing with a sense of enormous gratitude after Hillary Hahn’s performance here at a Gala concert a few years ago – the way she balanced passion and precision in perfect measure was something for which we were all grateful. Thomas’ singing was balanced perfectly on a very exposed tightrope. The care an attention he lavished on every syllable and every note was something that I think will continue to inspire all of us over time, and definitely made this afternoon’s concert one for the ages.
Which isn’t to discount all of the other offerings: each of the vocal and instrumental soloists brought unceasing artistry to their roles. Whom among us there today could ever forget Dashon Burton’s Betrachte, meine Seel, with wave after wave of lovingly rendered devotion, complemented by the achingly beautiful violas d’amore of Paul Miller and Henry Valoris? In Laura Atkinson’s Es ist volbracht, she paused for an extra few milliseconds, before the final recapitulation of the melody, displaying an artistic maturity well beyond her years (such talent!). David Newman turned to us during the Kreuzige, and then channeled all of our energy in his succeeding recitatives, creating a symbiotic dramatic propulsion that made Pilate’s interactions with Bill Sharp’s Jesus absolutely electric. Hearing Laurie Himes sing the soprano arias gave voice to the believers in two exceptionally challenging pieces: radiant devotion in the first, deeply-moving despair in the second. Isaiah Bell reconciled the challenging text and fiendishly difficult music of his Erwäge with a panache and seemingly effortlessness that made the aria work in a very uncommon way. Witnessing the genuine connection, on stage, and the sincere camaraderie, off stage, of the soloists was very gratifying. As most of them are now a generation younger than our fearless leader, it’s also very rewarding to see such world-class musicians come to Bethlehem for a visit with Uncle Greg, who relates to them as a kind mentor and gracious host. That so many of them detour to Bethlehem from major artistic centers, in the midst of ascendant careers, speaks to the mutual affection and respect kindled between singers and our tremendously talented Kapellmeister.
Likewise, I don’t recall when the Bach Festival Orchestra has ever sounded better, and many kudos are owed to our fierce and fiercely elegant instrumentalists. Such was the unanimity of tone, inflection, and phrasing of Robin Kani and Linda Ganus on the obbligato of the soprano aria, Ich folge dir gleichfalls, that I thought, for a minute, that someone was playing a giant, double-sized flute. The entire string section played with exceptional sensitivity and care, with deeply-impressive intonation, and beautiful phrasing. Mary Watt and Nobuo Kitagawa played a variety of double reed instruments, always with uncommon sensitivity and color. Special kudos to John Mark Rozendaal for his stunning work on the viola da gamba, and for rounding out the cello section with Loretta O’Sullivan, who, with Charlotte Mattax Moersch, formed a continuo dream team.
As always, a tip of the hat to Greg for leading a performance that crackled with dramatic intensity, devotion, and spectacular musicianship. The care with which he shapes every phrase and the inspiring depth with which he conjures all of this to life are blessings to each of us, performers and audience, alike. I’ve sung in four performances of the St. John with him, now, and, though each one is special, I can’t remember one that had such a unyielding sense of drama and purpose as what we shared in this afternoon. Early twentieth century musicologists often referred to the heights of Bach’s compositional prowess achieved in Leipzig as his “mature master period,” and I feel that slight bit of hagiography could equally be applied, without risk, to the music Greg is making these days. New heights.
Finally, I was so proud of my colleagues in the Choir. Most of us were tired – I, personally, had a long morning at church, but we were also elated to have this opportunity to make music in such inspiring company. I gave three media interviews, two weeks of presentations to our adult bible study at church, wrote a lot for this blog and Facebook, and each time I promised everyone a special, moving experience. I hope it was a promise kept for everyone, because it was certainly a performance I’ll never forget. Audience who derived meaning from the experience are most cordially invited to continue the thread we began in Advent with the Christmas Oratorio at the Festival in May. Bach’s ebullient and euphoric Easter Oratorio is on tap, along with a rich kaleidoscope of performances, including Taylor 2 dance, one of our great American trumpet virtuosos, Terry Everson, the pre-eminent Bach scholar of our times, Christoph Wolff, and much, much more. Stay tuned for previews of all of that, as well as a special performance of Bach’s epic motet, Singet dem Herrn, at April’s Bach at Noon.