Chicago Chorale offers radiant ensemble singing in “St. John Passion”

Mon Mar 25, 2013 at 12:56 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

With Easter on the horizon, the current week is offering two opportunities to catch large-scale Bach works of the Lenten season. The Chicago Bach Project will present the Mass in B minor on Wednesday and the Chicago Chorale did its part with a performance of the St. John Passion Sunday afternoon at Rockefeller Chapel.

The Chicago Chorale is one of our city’s lesser-known gems, with artistic director Bruce Tammen drawing stellar ensemble work from this all-volunteer group. So it was again with the glorious choral singing providing the most consistent element in Sunday’s solid, often superb Bach performance Sunday in Hyde Park.

The St. John Passion is the earliest of the three Bach religious cornerstones that have survived, based on the narrative of events leading up to Jesus’s crucifixion (Bach’s St. Mark Passion is among many of the composer’s works that are lost.) The setting of St. John is a faster paced, more urgent account of the Easter story than the expansive St. Matthew Passion, which offers more contemplative arias interspersed between the Passion narrative.

Sunday’s performance drew an audience that nearly packed Rockefeller Chapel to the back row—a notable achievement in itself—and benefited from some superb vocal soloists.

Singing the role of Jesus was Gerard Sundberg. While a true bass seems to fit this dramatic assignment better, Sundberg sang with a rich, rounded baritone and exemplary diction, bringing a nobility and dignified pathos to Jesus’s final words.

As the Evangelist, Steven Soph was first-class across the board. The young tenor possesses the high, agile instrument necessary for this pivotal narrator role, and vividly characterized the text while keeping the narrative moving forward.

Ellen Hargis’s clear, expressive singing and bell-like tone in her two arias made one wish the soprano had more to do in this work. Paul Max Tipton’s dark baritone was well-suited to the dramatic exchanges as Pilate; he also brought a graceful, firmly focused vocalism to his arias, including a beautifully sung Betrachte, meine Seel, and Mein teurer Heiland with the chorus.

Less inspired was tenor William Bennett, whose thin voice and pallid expression sounded overparted in his arias.

Susan Druck’s high mezzo seemed vocally miscast as well. Von den Stricken meiner Sunden was a shambles, though not entirely her fault, with her underprojected singing overwhelmed by a pair of blowsy, poorly blended Baroque oboes. Es ist vollbracht fared somewhat better but this crucial aria should be the climax of the entire work, and Sunday failed to make the necessary impact.

The orchestra proved a similarly mixed bag, made up of some of the best Baroque and period-instrument players in town with a few ringers out of their depths. Cellos (Craig Trompeter and Anna Steinhoff) and second violins were excellent, with first violins uneven, and flutes and oboes erratic at best.

But the fulcrum of the performance was the 55-member Chicago Chorale who, under Tammen’s flowing and idiomatic direction, brought expressive depth and radiant tone to the great choral moments. The sopranos were especially fine, secure and soaring in the fugal challenges of Ware diser nicht ein Ubeltater. Yet the entire vocal ensemble shone gloriously as with the lovely account of Wer hat dich so geschlagen, the great intensity of their cries of “Kreuzige, kreuzige!” (Crucify, crucify!) as well as the glowing expression of In meines Herzens Grunde.


The Chicago Chorale has just released their CD of Rodion Shchedrin’s The Sealed Angel. Recorded live last November, this concert was chosen as the Top Performance of 2012 by Chicago Classical Review. The CD costs $15 and is available at the Seminary Coop and 57th Street Books, by calling 773-306-6195, or logging on to

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Chicago Chorale offers radiant ensemble singing in “St. John Passion””

  1. Posted Mar 27, 2013 at 9:45 am by Mrs. Marilyn Oaks

    My friend and I traveled from Springfield, IL to hear this excellent presentation, and were enthralled by the blend and expertise of the chorus and by the stellar Evanelist’s and soprano soloist’s singing. The entire concert was a JOY!!

Leave a Comment