When Johann Sebastian Bach first performed the St. John Passion in 1724, he was simultaneously fulfilling his duties of employment and expressing his faith unequivocally through his art. Never imagining the influence on every musician who’s composed or performed once his genius was finally discovered or experiencing the adulation for his exceptional work from eternally thankful music lovers, the devoted composer must have felt not a little internal pride as his creations came to life, week after week for so many years. The reward was likely more in the doing than the next commission, ecstatic review or Grammy win (and the like) that provide modern-day practitioners with quantifiable proof of their abilities.
The indisputable fact—based on Sunday’s performance—that, going on three centuries later, Bach’s ever-challenging music can be performed at such a very high standard in Niagara is first and foremost the result of conductor Robert Cooper’s unstinting dedication to Chorus Niagara which is returned many times over by those who sing their hearts out to survive many of life’s more mundane tasks. It’s always a pleasure to be in the room with a shared experience that excites and inspires the performers and their audience. What an even greater pleasure it will be when the remaining pieces of paperwork and budget allocations come together and—finally—get the “shovels in the ground” for the Niagara Centre for the Arts. Anything less would be an astonishing failure to recognize the need for a proper venue to truly hear the composer’s intentions, which, in turn, can only raise the bar still higher for our performing arts organizations.
Sitting in the balcony of the Cathedral of St. Catherine, it was curious to discover that when a couple of the soloists stood just in the right “sweet” spot, their voices were unexpectedly echoed, as if the dreaded microphones so prevalent in today’s music theatre performances had found their way into the mix. The uniformly poor sightlines (through no fault of the cathedral as it wasn’t designed for large-forces music-making) meant that—for the majority of the crowd—much of the conductor’s gestures, soloists’ expressions and musicians’ playing techniques had to be imagined rather than experienced: not dissimilar to listening to a CD.
Cooper most certainly had programmed himself a formidable task. The forty musical numbers that comprise the oratorio are a quilt-work of choruses, chorales, arias and recitatives. Very nearly as many orchestrations and voice/accompaniment combinations keep the colours constantly changing; the variety of tempi and harmonic underpinnings also pose considerable questions of relationship and overall direction. To his credit, much of the performance flowed seamlessly, keeping the audience engaged and erasing the concept of the passage of time.
The chorus was magnificent. One could argue that many of the chorales seemed a tad brisk to savour their harmonic implications, but triumphs such as the opening of Part II (“Christus, de runs selig macht”) instantly quashed any quibbles in a display of excellent balance and first-rate diction. At times, the sopranos lacked unanimity in truly supporting the top (“Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine”) but were a marvel of pitch surety in the chromatic passages (notably “Wäre dieser nicht ein Übeltäer”). For spectacular finish, replete with beautifully glowing ring, it would be hard to surpass “Ach grosser König” jaunty fugal lines of “Wir haben ein Gesetz,” were exhilarating at every turn; indeed most of Part II had more pep than the opening portion.
The six soloists had an intriguing range of styles and skills.
In the declamatory role of the Evangelist, tenor James McLean was, at times, frustratingly inconsistent. His delectable quality and ability to summon potentially awkward consonants out of nowhere was uncomfortably overshadowed by sketchy pitch at the tonality-shifting cadences. As Jesus, bass Michael York’s strong confident tone was a highlight in Part I, but couldn’t regain that glory after intermission. Alex Dobson used his great lyrical ability and dramatic presence (even staring down the crowd), producing a bass-hued Pilate that was a constant pleasure.
The most exceptional voice of the group emanated from countertenor Daniel Cabena whose beautiful phrasing and deceptively easy-sounding flow was, unfortunately, overwhelmed by the oboes and continuo in “Von den Stricken meiner Sünden” before the break then a marvel of control later (“Es ist vollbracht”) where cellist Mary Katherine Finch made a valiant attempt to follow his lead. Let’s hope the re-engagement of Cabena with a larger assignment is being contemplated.
Tenor Cory Knight’s arias were well-paced and infused with an invigorating tone that floated easily above the Talisker Players. Particularly memorable was the da capo of “Erwäge wie sein blutgefärbeter Rücken” where the lines were given with even greater freedom than their first incarnation. A wonderfully pure tone and expressive delivery were the hallmarks of soprano Agnes Zsigovics. With the inclusion of Victoria Ellis Hathaway (English horn) and flautist Anne Thompson in the instrumental accompaniment of “Zerfliesse mein Herze,” the music wove its sombre spell with great distinction.
In the final “Chorale,” Cooper wisely invited everyone (soloists and chorus) to share Bach’s final adieu, leaving the capacity crowd moved both by the genius of his creation and the great care with which it had been presented. JWR