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GOOD FRIDAY was commemorated in traditional style in Sanders Theater, as F. John Adams led the Collegium Musicum and a talented group of soloists and instrumentalists in an emotional performance of Bach's The Passion According to St. John.
During the Middle Ages, the Passion of Jesus was traditionally performed as part of the Roman Catholic liturgy for this season. Gradually music was added to the drama and the passion-oratorio began to emerge. Bach, who brought the form to its highest expression, wrote five of these passions of which two--St. Matthew and St. John--survive today. In them, Bach interweaves recitatives and choruses which tell the story with arias and chorales which comment on it.
The major dramatic burden falls on the Evangelist, an emotionally involved narrator. Karl Dan Sorensen performed brilliantly in this demanding role. Within the confining limits of the baroque recitative, a form which Bach uses with variety and subtlety, Sorensen sang with remarkable expression. With flawless intonation and a profound understanding of the text, he gave a beautiful and deeply moving performance.
The Collegium played the role of the mob which howls for the crucifixion of Jesus. Throughout the piece, they displayed a lovely tone coupled with impeccable clarity of pronunciation, proving again they are a highly disciplined, professional-sounding chorus.
With an extraordinarily beautiful and rich tone, particularly in the low range, Francis Hester convincingly conveyed the anguish and resignation of Jesus. He generated a palpable emotional intensity in an understated, wonderfully sensitive performance. David Bachrach was an accurate and effective Pontius Pilate.
In addition to these actors, four soloists sing numerous arias and ariosos which reflect upon the drama. These singers were the source of whatever weakness existed in the performance. The accurate but weak soprano of Susan Larson failed to fill the hall. Alto Pamela Gore often shrouded pitch and rhythm with an excessive vibrato. Tenor Ivan Oak had inexcusable difficulty in following the conductor which, together with an inability to pronounce the German text, resulted in a disappointing performance. David Evitts, however, displaying a full-toned but agile bass, gave the sensation of an effortless flow of notes.
Beyond their role as the mob, the Collegium sang a number of meditative chorales. In the earliest performances of the Passion, these were probably sung by the whole congregation, a large untrained group which doubtlessly obliterated the breathtaking subtlety and power of these short masterpieces. The Collegium, however, sang with clarity and grace, bringing to these contemplative pieces the same deep involvement and energy with which they performed the loud and menacing mob choruses.
The small group of instrumentalists played with accuracy and assurance. The harpsichord, organ and cello contino provided strong support for the numerous recitatives.
Conductor F. John Adams molded these diverse forces into a unified, dramatically satisfying performance. His presence was felt in every aspect--particularly in the marvellous preparation of the Collegium. He handled the complex interactions between soloists and chorus with ease and precision.
In the St. John Passion, Bach transforms one of the most beautiful and pervasive myths of all time into a monumental work of art. Adams, Sorensen, and the other performers revealed that monument to us in all its power and glory.
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