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Appearing before a large and appreciative audience in the acoustically-splendid Meymandi Concert Hall, the North Carolina Master Chorale performed a profound and moving St. John Passion, S. 245 by J.S. Bach. Seven soloists and two choirs (Sanderson High School Sandpipers and Leesville Road High School Capital Pride prepared by Marshall Butler and Diane Brown Covington, respectively) joined the 160-voice ensemble. A chamber orchestra of 25 players provided accompaniment, all under the diligent and sensitive direction of NCMC Music Director Alfred E. Sturgis.
The lead figure of the Passion is the role of the Evangelist, who narrates the story of Jesus’ betrayal, trial, crucifixion and death. Lawrence Wiliford was astounding in this role. His tenor voice took on the various characters demanded by the Biblical text — from simply “moving the plot along” to passionate pleading to intense cries of fervor; the vocal timbre drew from a seemingly infinite number of colors and affects, all in clearly enunciated German.
Second in importance to the Evangelist are the ten large choral numbers. These serve as meditative moments of respite, where the listener is asked to consider the consequences of the action taking place in the story. Some of the chorales are familiar to many in the audience as hymns that might be sung in church. The clean and coherent choral sound belied the large number of voices. The opening “Herr, unser Herrscher” churns with foreboding; here the NCMC caught the emotion although not without some high note problems for the sopranos. Warmth and sustained legato characterized many of the other choral numbers.
The drama became palpable in the rapid-fire singing of the Evangelist with other characters and a “smaller” choir (sung by the NCMC without the high school choristers), which portrays, in turn, angry mobs, soldiers, and priests. Sometimes the energy in these sections reached a feverish pitch, goaded by Wiliford’s intensity.
Bach wrote the work in two large parts, which is further divided into six smaller sections such as “Betrayal and Capture,” “Peter’s Denial,” etc. In these passages, characters from the Biblical text (as translated into German by Martin Luther) take on individual personalities. William Adams sang the role of Jesus with subdued intensity. Lewis Moore’s Pilate was strong and effective. The Maid, Peter, and the Servant were sung by NCMC members Abra Carroll Nardo, David John Hailey, and Reed Altman, respectively.
Four other soloists express individual responses of believers. Kathryn Mueller’s clear soprano voice was a delight to hear in her two lovely arias. Obbligato solo instruments aided in the overall effect — flutes in the first and bassoons and oboes in the second. Donald Milholin’s sturdy bass singing provided heart-felt outpourings; two of his three arias are sung in tandem with the chorus with magical results. Andria Helm was the alto soloist and Andrew Crane the tenor.
The instrumental accompaniment was first-rate, despite some minor ensemble issues. Susan McClaskey’s dependable and substantive organ playing was the glue that held the disparate parts of the Passion together.
The continuo cellist (unspecified in the program) was an equal partner with McClaskey, and his many solo lines were great. Webster Williams, who joined the instruments in Part II, added distinctive gamba playing in some fine solo passage work, as did the first chair violins (again, unspecified). Maestro Sturgis’ clear and unfussy conducting offered singers and instrumentalists alike the guidance to expressively convey the Lenten story.