A performance of Bach’s St. John Passion at the First Unitarian Society, before an almost capacity audience, was a perfect celebration of Good Friday. It’s the latest landmark by Trevor Stephenson’s Madison Bach Musicians.
Bach revised this work, through some four versions, during his Leipzig years. He was not finished with it when he died—literally a work in progress, never formally completed. The edition used by Madison Bach Musician is the conventionally accepted third version.
As with the Messiah presentation a year ago, Stephenson has organized a proper Baroque recreation. The instruments are all period ones, or played in period style. And the scale suggests what Bach might have mustered in his Leipzig church. There is a total of 10 singers (women and men), with an orchestra of 17 (12 on strings, 4 on winds, and organ).
Now, right away, some problems emerge. Bach used boys as trebles, and there is still argument about how large his choir would have been. Of the singers, one, the sturdy tenor Dann Coakwell, is the narrating Evangelist. The others sing the choruses and chorales, and from their number come those taking small roles and the solo arias.
Certainly the singers are good. The men excel, notably tenor Ryan Townsend, and the two basses, Richard Ollarsaba (noble as Jesus), and Joshua Copeland (first as Peter, then as Pilate). Chelsie Propst, often a spare tire in the chorus, is magnificent in singing the final aria.
The point is, though, that eight or nine adult mixed voices do not a chorus make. Though they work with enthusiasm, they sound more like individual voices than as an ensemble, and do not stand up sufficiently against the 17 instrumentalists. Stephenson and conductor Marc Vallon seem fixated on presenting mini-choruses rather than something like the real thing, and, as with last year’s Messiah, the results are not sonically satisfactory.
That said, the performance is devoted and stylish. Vallon continues to be an energetic and inspiring conductor. Large audience response clearly shows that these Easter-season events are a firm tradition and a great credit to Madison Bach Musicians.
Stephenson gives a talk before the performance, and, echoing practices at Bach’s Leipzig church, Rev. Michael Schuler of First Unitarian Society delivers a sermon on issues of the St. John text between the two parts.
A final performance is April 15.