Bach’s ‘St. John Passion’ with the National Philharmonic at Strathmore

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Johann Sebastian Bach wasn’t just fulfilling a professional responsibility when he wrote religious music. A devout Lutheran, Bach meant what he wrote and sought musical texts and texture that would penetrate the listener’s heart and soul.

Nowhere in Bach’s gigantic output is that more evident than in the St. John Passion, a two-hour oratorio first performed on Good Friday of 1724 based on the Gospel of John and interspersed with homilies and personal reflections. On Saturday night at The Music Center at Strathmore, six soloists effectively delivered both the St. John Passion’s uplifting messages as well as its deliberately harder edges, all backed by the National Philharmonic Orchestra & Chorale led by Associate Conductor Victoria Gau.

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Conductor Victoria Gau. Photo courtesy of the Capital City Symphony.
Conductor Victoria Gau. Photo courtesy of the Capital City Symphony.

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Baritone Andrew McLaughlin. Photo courtesy of Inscape Chamber Orchestra.
Baritone Andrew McLaughlin. Photo courtesy of Inscape Chamber Orchestra.

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Tenor Rufus Muller. Photo courtesy of his website.
Tenor Rufus Muller. Photo courtesy of his website.

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In particular, two veteran Bach performers set the stage for two outstanding rising stars. Reprising their St. John Passion performances of two weeks earlier on Palm Sunday at the Washington National Cathedral, tenor Rufus Müller as “the Evangelist” (representing the gospel writer John) and Christopheren Nomura as the baritone soloist (mostly presenting the words of Pontius Pilate) sang confidently and with full intentionality.

Mr. Müller in particular has a marvelously engaging way of presenting the huge amount of narrative in the St. John Passion depicting the final week of the life of Jesus Christ. And he sings it so seamlessly that you forget what difficult tenor notes Bach wrote for the Evangelist.

That opened the gates for the two emerging artists. Depicting the words of Jesus throughout the performance was Washington native Andrew McLaughlin, a recent master’s degree recipient of the University of Maryland who has already appeared in four different productions of the Washington National Opera. Mr. McLaughlin has a gorgeous baritone voice that nevertheless offers stunning projection especially in its middle and higher ranges.

As Mr. McLaughlin’s career develops, his bass-baritone range is likely to darken and strengthen for additional opera and concert roles. But for this performance, the contrast between a clearly “young” Jesus answering lines from both an older narrator represented by Mr. Müller and an authoritative Pilate depicted by Mr. Nomura was both dramatically and musically effective.

It was in the moments when the St. John Passion angles off of the gospel narrative into personal reflection and spirituality that the other emerging star of the performance stepped in, mezzo-soprano Magdalena Wór. Ms. Wór sang two featured arias of the oratorio in heart-stopping fashion that displayed her distinctively rich and layered mezzo voice.

Mezzo-soprano Magdalena Wor. Photo courtesy of her website.
Mezzo-soprano Magdalena Wor. Photo courtesy of her website.

In Von den Stricken meiner Sünden (“From the shackles of my vices”), Ms. Wór superbly twirled around the melody in a perfect balance of vocal technique and meaning, although to some extent her lowest tones competed for prominence with very exposed lines from two oboe players placed in front of the violas and cellos rather than behind.

But it was late in the oratorio with the mezzo’s striking solo Es ist vollbracht (variously translated as “The end has come” or “All is fulfilled” in imitation of Jesus’ last words) that Ms. Wór’s wonderfully sophisticated phrasing and vocal timbre, set against a more open orchestration, almost tangibly sent a wave of hushed attention across the Strathmore audience. Ms. Wór’s transition from a fast middle section that declares the German equivalent of “our hero battles on with might” in several coloratura passages into a surrendering two final restatements of the aria’s title was most effective of all.

Rounding out the solo forces were soprano Rosa Lamoreaux and tenor Matthew Smith, deployed along with Ms. Gau efficiently leading the orchestra and chorus through the many dissonances and tension-inducing moments of the St. John Passion. More so than a parallel Bach composition called the St. Matthew Passion that is known for lush chorale writing, the St. John Passion weaves accusation and raw conflict into the narrative portions, telegraphed by an opening that combines surging strings and adjacent woodwind instruments competing in direct dissonance that’s surprising for the early 18th century.

As usual, the National Philharmonic Chorale used its full complement of nearly 200 singers for this performance. Given the nature of the St. John Passion, this may not be the most effective way to present the music (and it’s certainly nothing like the way Bach would have done it originally with most likely a couple dozen singers).

Compared to other choruses that appear at Strathmore such as the Baltimore Choral Arts Society or the University of Maryland Concert Choir, the National Philharmonic Chorale does not always present complete unanimity of purpose. Big entrances in the St. John Passion – many of them immediate, sharp responses to the narrative or Jesus’ words – often took two or three notes until it sounded like the full chorus had joined. And the German diction sounded distinctive out of about half of the group, more approximate out of the other half.

Dissonant, even scary moments in the oratorio, such as repeated choral cries of Kreuzige, kreuzige! (“Crucify him, crucify him!”) were more effectively presented with about half the vocal forces, including a children’s choir, at the Cathedral. With a vocally heavy schedule for the National Philharmonic’s 2015-16 season just announced, the Chorale has a lot to shoot for and many models in the Washington area to imitate.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mKRvnS2HFF4

For musical theater fans who may be instinctively wondering by now if there’s actually a connection between the narrative force of this early 18th-century oratorio and a rock musical like Jesus Christ Superstar – but intellectually doubting that could be case – well, don’t doubt yourself. Despite the radically different musical language, there really is an amazing similarity here, both in the spiritual force of the story (which is almost exactly the same) and the simultaneous interfaith questions raised by the language used. While the Cathedral’s program notes effectively dealt with Bach’s universalizing intentions despite many explicit references to die Jüden (“the Jews”), just as effective are wonderful comments by Ms. Wór (who started singing as a “cantor” in a Catholic church at age 7 in her native Poland) in my recent interview with her about the approach to the piece from multiple faith perspectives.

No wonder the St. John Passion has survived almost 300 years. It’s likely to be heard for hundreds of years more.

Running Time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, with one 15 minute intermission.

Bach’s St. John Passion was performed on Saturday, April 11, 2015 at The Music Center at Strathmore – 5301 Tuckerman Lane, in North Bethesda, MD. For future National Philharmonic events at Strathmore, check their concert schedule. For all future Strathmore events, check their calendar of events.

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David Rohde
David Rohde is a pianist, conductor, vocal teacher, music arranger, and arts writer. David has worked extensively in musical theater in Washington and around the mid-Atlantic region. He’s been music director and conductor for shows ranging from the Riverside Center for the Performing Arts’ 2016 production of Oklahoma! in Fredericksburg to pop/rock musicals like Evita, Next to Normal and Blood Brothers in the D.C. suburbs. His other journeys around the musical genres have included performing a piano recital series at the National Lutheran Home, accompanying singers in repertoire from bel canto opera to contemporary Broadway, and fronting a band one night in Rockville for the late Joan Rivers. David is a 2-time recipient and 8-time nominee for the WATCH Award for Outstanding Music Direction, and he loves watching the actors and musicians he’s worked with “make it” when they pursue regional and national performing arts careers.