It was with a majesty and solemnity that befit both the towering venue and the Biblical story that the Northwest Sinfonietta performed Bach’s St. John Passion tonight at First Presbyterian Church, Seattle. (The Passion is repeated Saturday in Tacoma and Sunday in Puyallup.) Turning the booming acoustics to a solid tonal advantage, the orchestra, along with Pacific Lutheran University’s Choral Union and five stellar soloists, told the story of Jesus’ crucifixion with a drama any 18th-century audience would immediately recognize.
Playing (or singing) Bach’s dense counterpoint and note-filled melodies in an acoustic like First Presbyterian is fraught with problems. It’s all too easy to create a swimming pool of sound, undistinguished rhythmically or dynamically. But Christophe Chagnard (and choir director Richard Nance) worked hard at clarity, separating the choir’s consonants and legato lines, giving plenty of space between phrases, demanding consonants and underscoring the whole thing with a pulsing bass line that defined the tempo without dominating. “Herr, unser Herrscher” opened the oratorio with a majestic wall of sound, strings roiling and voices undulating with ominous warning of what was to come.
But the thing that made this Passion a success was the sheer drama. As the Evangelist, Christopher Cock put his high, florid tenor to expressive use, anchoring the narrative and passing emotions between the other soloists. Clayton Brainerd sang a Jesus who was calm and authoritative, full of gravitas and wonderfully restrained with dynamics that occasionally burst out in rich power for key phrases. Charles Robert Stephens gave Pilate a fierce CEO attitude, his baritone dark and ironic, occasionally revealing a underlying fear: “What is truth?”
In their short but eloquent parts, soprano Cyndia Sieden and mezzo Sarah Mattox offered thoughtful contributions for the most part. Mattox delivered an unfortunately bland “Von den Stricken,” accompanied by two very shy oboes, but she rose to the awful finality of “Es ist Vollbracht” with real presence and a buttery tone. Sieden sang with Emma Kirkby-like purity and sweetness, conjuring sheer joy out of the runs in “Ich folge dir gleichfalls” (with two very responsive flutes), and adeptly rescuing a near-miss in her later aria.
And, after some initial scratchiness, the choir gave their all. Strong tenors, fluid altos and some fine soloists added to a very genuine conviction, as Chagnard pulled every ounce of passion out of the spitting choruses and luxurious, intelligently-structured chorales. Separating the chorus spatially out of their usual four parts didn’t work so well for the fugues but the effect in the crowd scenes was startling: Pointing and shaking fists, they became a death-crazed mob in a way that sent chills down the spine.
Throughout all, the Sinfonietta played with their usual exquisite grace, featuring light, responsive (if a little unimaginative) continuo, violins with swift, tone-painting brushstrokes (especially in Stephens’ haunting “Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen”) and simply marvelously anguish in the violas for their “Erwäge” duet.
Surtitles on nearby screens told the story in English without distracting; similarly, soloist entrances, exits and placements reminded us subtly of the very human actors in this story.
As Chagnard’s sweeping dynamic architecture hammered home the drama of Christ’s trial, suffering, death and final hopeful promise, this St. John Passion – perfectly timed for Lent – became the kind of musical experience Puget Sound audiences should have every year.
The Northwest Sinfonietta plays Bach’s St. John Passion again Saturday and Sunday.
7:30 p.m. March 15; Rialto Theater, 310 S. 9th St., Tacoma. 800-291-7593
2 p.m. March 16; Pioneer Pavilion, 330 S. Meridian Ave., Puyallup. 800-838-3006
Tickets $27-$55, student rush $10 one hour before performance. nwsinfonietta.org
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 firstname.lastname@example.org