Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Talk About the Passion

April 02, 2012


Handel may have Christmas all sewn up with omnipresent performances of The Messiah, but at Easter, it’s all about Bach. And just to cement the deal, the Baroque legend composed not one, but two, count ‘em, two settings of the Passion story. And when you get to Holy Week each year, the greater of the two, St Matthew Passion, is almost unavoidable. But the Los Angeles Master Chorale decided to mix things up over the weekend with two performances of the other, less performed work, St. John Passion, under their music director Grant Gershon alongside members of Musica Angelica. The reasons why the latter work is less frequently performed are multifold. The music is certainly less dramatic overall with a more direct and restrained tenor. Then there is John’s less dramatized take on the story to contend with. And then there is the issue of John's anti-Semitic tone. But all the things that make Bach great are still on display, and the Master Chorale had no difficulty filling the Walt Disney Concert Hall two nights in a row for performances of the work with a smaller chorus and their period-practice Baroque ensemble cohorts.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing. The chorus sounded passionate with a heart-felt faithful fervor appropriate to the text. But the standard they set as an ensemble wasn’t always met by the soloists and orchestra. Period instruments are notoriously less likely to maintain their tuning compared to modern instruments and tuning can often be a process. And while the Musica Angelica players did take their time to get the sound right, there were still pitch issues throughout parts of the performance. This bled into problems for some of the vocal soloists who sounded knocked off-balance by the same issues when they flared up. There were some very successful solo turns, however, from bass Reid Burton who clutched his score to his chest while performing his solo in a very affecting gesture. And the ever wonderful Elissa Johnston more than made up for vocal setbacks elsewhere. It was a night marked more with puritan restraint than fervent exuberance, but Gershon still managed to get a great performance from the chorus as a whole. And given that the Chorale was both sponsor and main attraction, the performance managed to land on its feet anyway despite some obstacles.



Bach actually composed at least one more Passion, to St Mark, but tragically only the libretto survives...
The St John is often referred to as the MORE dramatic of the two Passions due to its operatic-like setting, not less as the writer states. The writer may think of St Matthew being more "dramatic," perhaps because of its size and heft, but hundreds of experts worldwide view it as quite the opposite.
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