Are we developing an historic, and "historically informed" tradition each Easter now?
Last year, Trevor Stephenson's Madison Bach Musicians, et al., gave us the first period-style performance ever here of Bach's monumental "St. Matthew Passion". Now, this year, Robert Gehrenbeck, leading his Wisconsin Chamber Choir, has given us Madison's first period-style presentation of Bach's "St. John Passion".
Shorter, more concise and intense that the "Matthew Passion", the "John" setting has a complex history of recurrent revisions by the composer through his Leipzig career. Perhaps never finished to his satisfaction, it comes down to us nevertheless as a compelling Christian drama.
Gehrenbeck's choir numbered 32 mixed voices -- perhaps a tad larger than Bach might have used, but superbly disciplined, of beautifully balanced sonority, and with notably clear German diction. A group of 17 period-instrument players contributed a pungent accompaniment that a modern orchestra could not have matched, with fine obbligato work by individual members, and ever-solid continuo foundation provided by cellist Anton Ten Wolde and organist John Chappell Stowe. It was a pity, though, that a lutenist could not have been mustered for the curious lute obbligato part in the bass arioso "Betrachte, meine Seel".
In any Passion performance, the narrative role of the Evangelist is pivotal, and clear-voiced James Doing (who also took one of the tenor arias) has this music in his blood. Likewise a veteran of this idiom is Paul Rowe, who sang the words of Christ. The four soloists in the arias were all admirable: I particularly liked the familiar tenor Ryan McEldowney, and contralto Julie Cross was quite moving in the great aria, "Es ist vollbracht!" Of the three members of the choir who took the small "character" roles, I was most impressed by baritone's William Rosholt's vivid and vocally rich portrayal of Pilate.
The performance was given, like last year's "Matthew Passion" in the new Atrium Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society. Considerable support effort was in evidence. The handsomely produced printed program was remarkably thorough and detailed, with full text and translation. As a backup to that, large-print supertitles were projected on a side screen, to encourage close following of the text.
Ventures like these can be a down-to-the-wire scramble, but Gehrenbeck managed to pull together a remarkably consistent, coherent, and artistically splendid achievement. He and his choir should be proud of establishing for themselves a more glowing status than ever in Madison's musical life.
And, like the two performances of the "Matthew Passion", the one presentation this time was sold out, with people turned away. Clearly, Madison audiences have come to welcome period-style recreations of literature once held captive to "modern" treatments. Food for thought here.