Music review: Master Chorale performs Bach’s ‘St. John Passion’

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Bach’s “St. John” is no ‘St. Matthew.’ The ‘St. John Passion’ does not hold the central place as one of the greatest and most revered spiritual artworks of Western civilization that Bach’s “St. Matthew” does. ‘John’ is smaller, shorter, more intimate, more dramatic. And controversial. Performances of “John” often include an apologia these days, since only one of Bach’s two surviving Passions is anti-Semitic.

But is “John” the lesser Passion? The current fashion is to consider it the modern one. It is prized for its terse theatricality and for the very fact that “John” is not weighed down by the sanctimonious baggage “Matthew” carries. But in a solemn performance by the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the period instrumental ensemble Musica Angelica at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Sunday night, “John” was expected to hold its spiritual own. And it did.


The Master Chorale’s music director, Grant Gershon, is a choral conductor with a foot on the lyric stage. He is also associate conductor of Los Angeles Opera, and there seems little doubt that he could have presented a histrionic, passionate “John” had he wanted to. But this was a “John” of consolation, not confrontation.

The most striking passages in “John” are the choral moments, and especially the ones in which Bach uses the chorus as the voice of the people -- this is where the uncomfortable passages from the Gospel According to John, in which the Jews demand the death of Jesus, are set with vivid theatricality.

The appropriate defense of Bach in the Master Chorale program book was that this Gospel text is what the composer had to work with. Bach simply represented the zeitgeist of early 18th century Leipzig, Germany. Still, that context is more easily accepted when the overall mood is restrained. And, contemplative composure was the aura in Disney on Sunday (at least until an overeager applauder broke the spell before the final chorale).

A muted “John” may be a little dull, but it can also be a revelation. Bach offers relatively few arias, and Gershon assigned them to members of his chorus who sang with varying degrees of effectiveness.

But the main role, that of the Evangelist, who functions as a narrator, was handled by a beautifully fluid and even-handed tenor, Pablo Corá, who did much to set the evening’s tone of exquisite moderation. Scott Graff was a subdued Jesus.

The two sopranos stood out. In an early aria, Claire Fedoruk colorfully decorated the vocal lines to “Ich folge dir gleichfalls” (“I’ll follow thee with gladdening paces”) with her own gladdening paces. The final temperature-moderating soprano aria, “Zerfliesse, mein Herze,” (“Melt now, my bosom”) was sung with melting warmth by Elissa Johnston.

But rarely did Gershon allow the temperature to rise. Musica Angelica is not an aggressive early music group and the more delicate instruments, such as the viola da gamba, barely carried in Disney. It was a soft sound the ensemble mostly made, like a cushion.

A trend with modern-day early musickers is to use a chorus the same size as the orchestra for period performances of “John.” Gershon went for a ratio of two singers per instrument, which meant a still small and flexible chorus of 40. That allowed for agility in contrapuntal passages but enough vocal heft to suffuse the hall with a kind of numinous choral sleep dust in the final chorus, “Ruht wohl” (Rest well”), which gently numbs our minds after we have witnessed too much horror.

But it was the ritualistic chorales in “John,” the moments of stepping back and assigning spiritual meaning to the narrative, that Gershon made matter the most. The Master Chorale sang them with a luminous tone. Bach’s miraculous harmonies disclosed miracles. Through them, Gershon opened up “John” to a more universal picture. Instead of treating the passion as straightforward tragedy, a brutal depiction of killing and an act of assigning blame typical of what we encounter daily in the news, Gershon made the performance an act of redemption. That was its true revelation.

RELATED: Honoring Bach With New Passions

Music review: Los Angeles Master Chorale’s ‘St. Matthew Passion’

Music review: Bach’s ‘St. John Passion’ by Musica Angelica

-- Mark Swed