Audiences do not often get to hear performances of the greatest choral masterpieces of Bach: the Mass in B Minor, the Christmas Oratorio, and the two extant Passions, even though several of these stand at the very pinnacle of western artistic achievement. It is no surprise as to the “why” these are seldom heard — they are enormous undertakings, calling for crack orchestral players, singers and soloists. The Bel Canto Company, working with the Chancel Choir of the First Presbyterian Church in Greensboro, and 20 instrumentalists, remedied this situation in the cathedral-like setting of the First Presbyterian Church, providing the 1000+ audience with a moving performance of Bach’s St. John Passion.
The text of the work draws from the Bible (as translated into German by Martin Luther), traditional hymns, and poetic verses of unknown origin in the depiction of the events leading up to and culminating in Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. According to notes contained within the splendid printed program (which included both German text and English translation), the Gospel “relates the historical events,” the chorales “represent the church’s understanding of them,” and the poetic verses “convey the emotional responses of the individual believer to them.”
The work is thus structured as a running story, presented by the Evangelist and various personae (such as Peter, Pilate and Jesus) singing Bible verses, with the choir (here the combined choirs) responding to events. Sometimes a smaller choral group — the “turba chorus” (the Bel Canto Company) — represents the Biblical crowd. Add a couple of secondary characters and an aria here and there, and you have a wonderful, unstaged musical drama.
Three musicians are crucial to a successful undertaking of such a work; the continuo group, which holds the orchestra and choir together here played by John Alexander on the portative organ and Gayle Masarie on cello, each attentive to BCC Artistic Director and Conductor Welborn Young’s unflagging direction.
The opening declamatory chorus brought the profundity of the work immediately to the fore; stirring orchestral underpinnings laid a solid foundation for the cry of the choir. Other choral highlights included some of the familiar chorales such as “O große Lieb” (“O great love”) and the intermingling of chorus and bass in “Mein teurer Heiland” (“My precious savior”), richly sung by Robert Wells.
One must say something about the acoustics of such a place as First Pres; it is cavernous, with a ceiling that towers over the space causing a diffused sound (probably not unlike that which Bach worked with in Leipzig). Sometimes the resultant acoustics can aid a choral sound but detract from fast-paced proceedings. Such was the case on Sunday, when the turba chorus (representing the Crowd) sang in split-second response to Pilate. Sometimes it seemed as if the singers were not quite prepared to answer as quickly or as solidly as Director Young urged.
The mover of the action in the work is given to the narrator, boldly sung by Brad Diamond. His role is essential not only to moving the story forward, but also to setting the drama level, something very much in evidence in his singing — from a soft, pleading voice to a near-hysterical cry at crucial moments. Often his singing was part of back-and forth between different characters such as the dialogue between Evangelist, Jesus (solidly and solemnly sung by Gerald Whittington), and the Chorus of Soldiers in Part One or between Evangelist, Pilate (effectively sung by Jason Barrios), Jesus, and the turba chorus. These sections provided great drama.
Tenor Robert Bracey sturdily provided arias, including the dramatic “Mein Herz,” (“My Heart”) toward the end. Stephanie Foley Davis was alto soloist; her singing of ”Es ist vollbracht!” (“It is accomplished!”) was particularly poignant. Other soloists included the roles of Peter (sung by Ralph Davison), Ancilla the Maid (Lauren Smith), and the servant (Bill Snedden). Julie Celona VanGorden and Hannah Carter admirably sang soprano arias.