Apollo Chorus rises to the heights with Bach’s “St. John Passion”

Mon Mar 14, 2022 at 2:39 pm

By Katherine Buzard

Bach’s “St. John Passion” was performed by the Apollo Chorus Sunday at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church.

If good things come to those who wait, such was surely the case with the Apollo Chorus’s performance of Bach’s St. John Passion, which was initially scheduled for March 2020. 

Music director Stephen Alltop began the concert Sunday afternoon at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church by recounting the day almost exactly two years ago when, in their last rehearsal before the pandemic shuttered everything, the Apollo Chorus performed the Passion for themselves, realizing their concert was not going to happen. Fortunately for the rest of us, the fruits of their labor did not go to waste. The superb community chorus, now in its 150th year, delivered a highly accomplished rendition of Bach’s monumental work.

The sizable choir was squeezed in the narrow sanctuary of the Lakeview church. The group was in top form, singing with fire and tenderness when warranted. Obviously well prepared and highly disciplined, they sang the difficult melismas and intricate fugues with notable precision. The short choral interjections when the choir acts as the crowd in the Passion play were snappy and full of drama. The overlapping hissing consonants of “Bist du nicht seiner Jünger einer?” gave the impression of a swarm of locusts, while “Sei gegrüßet, lieber Jüdenkönig” and “Kreuzige, kreuzige” were appropriately biting.

Music director Stephen Alltop conducted Sunday’s Bach performance.

Alltop was wise in his pacing throughout, particularly in his choice of tempi for the chorale movements, which can often get bogged down. His conducting was clear yet flexible, and he brought out the textural contrasts and fugal entrances in movements such as “Wir haben ein Gesetz” and “Lässest du diesen los” effectively throughout (there could have been more of this in the opening movement, “Herr, unser Herrscher”). 

Leading members of the Elmhurst Symphony Orchestra, Alltop eked out earthy warmth from the strings in the outer choral movements and led the continuo players (cellist Jean Hatmaker and organist David Schrader) through the recitatives with clarity and precision. At times, however, the obbligato instruments covered their vocal soloist counterparts.

The key to any successful Passion is the Evangelist, and the sweet-toned tenor Erik Gustafson was perfectly cast, his recitative narration was clear, sensitive, and engaging. He was most effective when he did not push the voice too much, as some of the high notes became a bit of a reach when attacked with too much intensity. But the key moments where he floated the tone were poignant and affecting. 

Soprano soloist Hannah De Priest was a vocal standout, delivering her two arias with poise and a gleaming tone. De Priest navigated the tricky chromaticism and quick breaths of “Ich folge dir gleichfalls” with ease and demonstrated impressive dynamic control in “Zerfließe, mein Herze” with tasteful messe di voce and straight tone effects. 

Countertenor soloist Ryan Belongie impressed with his vocal agility in “Von den Stricken” and the fiery B section of “Es ist vollbracht,” but the more lyrical moments showed off the bloom in his upper register. The oboes covered him at times in his first aria, but his duet with the expressive Katherine Shuldiner on viola da gamba in “Es ist vollbracht” was well balanced. The emotional heart of the work, the final line of that aria was sung with heart-breaking vulnerability.

Bach’s tenor solos are notoriously impossible in their prolonged high tessitura and instrumental vocal lines, but tenor soloist Ryan Townsend Strand negotiated these challenges well. Bass-baritone soloist Evan Bravos sang with appealing lyricism, though he dragged the tempo of both of his arias, making it difficult for Alltop to maintain the one-to-a-bar feel of “Mein teurer Heiland” and the drive of “Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen” (“Hurry, you tempted souls”).

In the other solo parts, chorus member Joseph Shacter brought drama to the roles of Pilate and Peter, and assistant conductor Cody Michael Bradley heroically stepped into the role of Jesus after the original soloist pulled out due to illness.

The chorus sounded a bit tired by “Ruht wohl,” but the final chorale, “Ach Herr, laß dein lieb Engelein,” was luminous, due in part to the addition of the soloists to the ensemble. Alltop instructed the audience not to clap after the conclusion of the Passion, but concluded with Jacobus Gallus’ motet “Ecce quomodo moritur iustus,” which would traditionally close out Good Friday services during Bach’s time. Sung with a group of only ten singers, it provided a nice moment of intimate contemplation after the intensity of the Passion.

The Apollo Chorus will present the Chicago premiere of Stacy Garrop’s oratorio Terra Nostra on June 13, 2022. apollochorus.org

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