BY KENNETH DELONG, CALGARY HERALD
Updated on April 25, 2019
For lovers of fine choral music, the last few weeks have been little short of miraculous. In late March, there was a superb performance of Mendelssohn Elijah, and on Good Friday there was, if anything, an even more finely crafted performance of J. S. Bach’s great St. John Passion.
Connecting these two events is Timothy Shantz, conductor of both the CPO Chorus and Luminous Voices, the organization that mounted the Bach St. John Passion. For Shantz, as a conductor, surely this must have been a dream come true: the opportunity to lead back-to-back performances of two of the greatest choral masterpieces.
For Calgary audiences, however, there is a bittersweet element here: Shantz has just been appointed to a choral position at The University of Alberta, and although he will still have a presence in the city going forward, it will inevitably be less than before, a decade in which he has transformed the choral life of the city. One can only wish him the best as he heads north, and be happy that some connection with Calgary will likely remain.
This performance of Bach’s St. John Passion was as intimate and personal as the performance of Elijah was grand and public. The Bella Concert Hall was the perfect venue for this performance: large enough to give some sense of scope and space, yet small enough for the voices and instruments to be easily heard.
Usually, the latter is not a problem, but in this instance, with the period instruments of Rosa Barocca providing the orchestral support, it was surely a good thing for the hall to be of modest size. Baroque flutes, for example, sound exceptionally sweet, but they are not naturally very loud. However, in the Bella, everything could be heard easily, and without the need to over-project the sound.
While the work is filled with well-known solos, it is the choral element that predominates. Once again one can only marvel at the clarity, incisive rhythm, and excellent enunciation of Luminous Voices. All sections of the choir have their individual moments in the sun in Bach’s impressive choral writing, but on this occasion it was the strong undergirding of the harmony in the bass section, especially in the many chorals, that drew the ear.
While a significant portion of the choral writing is only normal-hard for Bach, there are passages, especially the chromatic moments and in the massive opening chorus that presses any choral group to its limits. But one had no sense of strain here, with the tenors rising in the stratosphere as needed and the sopranos rock-solid throughout.
Schantz is steeped in this Germanic/Lutheran tradition, and it showed in his conducting of the numerous chorals, which were not only idiomatic, but beautifully differentiated in shading, based upon the words and the music that clothes them. It was hard to leave the hall without being just a trifle more Lutheran than when one went in.
The many solo aspects of the work were organized to provide the maximum in variety. Instead of having one singer sing all the solos for one voice type, the solos were divided among the guest artists and various members of the ensemble, many of whom are, indeed, soloists in their own right.
The part of the evangelist is the largest and most important role among the soloists. Without a good evangelist, this work basically fails. As the evangelist, Lawrence Wiliford was as polished and elegant as anything one could wish for. For beauty of voice, dramatic projection, and a deep understanding of the music, Wiliford was the equal of any tenor on anyone’s favourite CDs. Colouring the words effectively and showing no apparent effort, he eloquently sang music that is vocally challenging and often very high — the perfect light tenor for the job. It was a magnificent performance.
The other designated roles were effectively sung as well: local bass Paul Grindlay nicely contrasted as Jesus, baritone Nicholas Allen solid as Peter, and, especially, Sumner Thompson impressive as Pilate. Thompson’s rich vocal timbre, comfortable in the lower register and with sweetness in the top, was completely captivating, as was his understanding and engagement with the expressive elements of the music. He also sang the bass solos with strength and polish.
Zach Finkelstein and Oliver Munar were the two tenors in the solo parts, Finkelstein particularly effective in the emotional Ach, mein Sinn in the first part of the Passion. Munar, (happily now singing tenor rather than bass, as he had to do in Elijah with no notice) was eloquent in his arioso in the second part of the Passion.
The women soloists were all first class as well. Chorister Hannah Pagenkopf was tapped for the happiest number in the work, the joyous Ich folge dir, one of the most popular numbers. As on other recent occasions, her singing was spot-on in its accuracy and in the inner life she gave to the music. She is now the go-to soprano in the city for lyric parts. The two flutists on wooden flutes, Alison Melville and Lucie Jones, provided a beautifully flowing accompaniment.
Jolaine Kerley from Edmonton was the other soprano soloist, and sang the difficult Zerfleisse, mein Herze with rare beauty and effortless floated top notes. The alto duties were divided between Patricia Thompson and Celia Lee, both of whom displayed excellent voices and a deep sense of the emotional meaning in their arias.
The presence of Rosa Barocca gave the entire performance a sense of the Baroque historical period from which the music stems, the colours of the theorbo, older-style oboes and bassoon giving the music a warm, intimate character. The continuo ensemble that has to work so closely with the tenor evangelist was quick on the uptake and presented a unified front in the important aspect of the performance. And the smooth, well blended strings played beautifully in tune and expressively.
As with Elijah, Shantz was the master of the situation, shaping the music, choosing appropriate tempos, and imbuing the performance with both drama and lyricism.
Performances of the St. John Passion in Calgary go only back to the 1960s, when it was first given here by the Festival Chorus under John Searchfield. But the tradition clearly continues, and with this performance of this great work, the promise of the past was realized in the finest performance of this work to be given in the city.