Nelson leads Chicago Bach Project in an inspired “St. John Passion”

Sat Mar 21, 2015 at 3:01 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Nicholas Phan sang the role of the Evangelist in Bach's "St. John Passion" Friday night at the Harris Theater. Photo: EElan Photos
Nicholas Phan sang the role of the Evangelist in Bach’s “St. John Passion” Friday night at the Harris Theater. Photo: EElan Photos

It seems like just yesterday that John Nelson launched his Chicago Bach Project with a successful performance of the mighty St. Matthew Passion. This year Nelson is marking the fifth anniversary of the series, which clearly has found an appreciative audience for these annual Lenten events.

There have been some adjustments—namely moving the concert last year from the architecturally resplendent yet acoustically problematic St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Lincoln Park to the more functional, decidedly non-ecclesiastical Harris Theater downtown.

This year’s installment brought the St. John Passion, presented Friday night. The St. John is the most intimate of Bach’s major choral works, more direct and expressive, scored for lighter forces. Yet the drama and musical peaks are just as powerful as the St. Matthew Passion.

Nelson fielded a more consistent lineup of soloists than for the first St. John in this series in 2012. There were a few glitches Friday night. The translated supertitles disappeared in the last half hour before returning for the final chorus. And one of the obbligato violas d’amore veered painfully and repeatedly out of tune.

But otherwise this was an inspired and affecting performance in the best tradition of Nelson’s Bach. The fulcrum once again was Stephen Morscheck and Nicholas Phan. Morscheck has sung Jesus in every concert in the series and his performance has only grown and deepened in stature. His bass has a natural gravitas and authority and Morscheck’s singing—really more of a portrayal–was all the more effective for its dignity and restraint.

Nicholas Phan’s Evangelist was wonderful last year and, likewise, has gotten even better. Once again, he handled the punishing high tessitura of the part with aplomb and brought a fiery dramatic intensity to the narrator role, consistently illuminating the text with subtle nuance and expressive detailing.

Matthew Brook was a fine Pilate, dramatically natural in his questioning of Morscheck’s Jesus, and characterful in his arias. Countertenor Lawrence Zazzo’s inward rendering of “Es ist vollbracht!” was the vocal highlight of the evening, aided by equally sensitive obbligato support by Craig Trompeter on viola de gamba.

Lisette Orpoesa is a gifted singer but her slender soprano sounds miscast in this repertory, fluttery in tone and unable to sustain the long line of “Zerfließe, mein Herze.” Tenor John Tessier offered a plaintive “Ach, mein Sinn,” though struggled with the high coloratura of his second aria.

As before, Nelson underlined the theatrical elements—the Passions are really Bach’s operas—with Pilate’s interrogation and the people’s responses having an almost theatrical frisson. The conductor also conveys the reverential quality with a natural eloquence, without allowing the spirituality to descend into sentiment.

The opening chorus could have been better blended and the orchestra and vocal ensemble threatened to get out of synch in the closing chorus. But for the most part the singing of the Chicago Bach Choir, prepared by Donald Nally, was polished and unified, expressive yet in scale for this work. The orchestra playing was excellent this year, with especially incisive string playing, and several players shone in the many obbligato solos. Cellist John Mark Rozendaal, bass Collins Trier and organist Stephen Alltop were the nimble and unified continuo group.

The concert opened for the first time with a non-Bach bonus, James MacMillan’s Alpha and Omega. This commission by Soli deo Gloria had its premiere at Rockefeller Chapel in 2011. Nally led a fine performance of this concise and moving a cappella work for chorus with the singers tackling the high challenges of the leaping vocal lines without strain.

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