A Gripping St. John Passion From S.F. Symphony Chorus and Voices of Music

Steven Winn on April 1, 2019
Ragnar Bohlin with the SFS Chorus in Performance | Credit: San Francisco Symphony

Powered by narrative intensity, gorgeously complex choruses and sublime chorales, shapely arias and ariosos, and subtly potent orchestral reinforcement, Bach’s St. John Passion feels inevitable, heaven-sent. From its arresting opening moments, a swirl of orchestral agitation opening into the architectural corridors and expanses of the chorus “Lord, our ruler,” this sacred work seems to have begun in medias res. Right away the listener is plunged into the depths of the passion story.

“Show us,” the singers plead of Jesus on the eve of his crucifixion, that “you, the true Son of God ... Have become transfigured!”

In their gripping performance of that number at Davies Symphony Hall on Saturday, March 30, the San Francisco Symphony Chorus took command. Under director Ragnar Bohlin’s firm direction, this great ensemble captured the raw sense of urgency Bach intended. With the vocal lines tugging and tearing at each other, rather than blending into easy accord, the chorus captured the cacophony of need in the text. The listener heard the choristers as real people, a crowd of individuals drawn together by what was at stake. The harmonies were hard earned. The contrapuntal writing inscribed itself on the listener.

S.F. Symphony Chorus | Credit: Brandon Patoc

In this one-night only collaboration by Bohlin’s Symphony Chorus and the period instrumentalists of Voices of Music, Davies became a place of collective worship, engagement and contemplation. It wasn’t a matter of Christian faith but instead an acknowledgment and embrace of the fundamental human drive for collective catharsis. We need to hear things, feel things, suffer, and find solace together. Bach, perhaps like no other composer in the Western canon, can lead us there.

The communal nature of Saturday’s concert extended to the participation of the audience. In four chorales scattered through the work, volunteers from the Amateur Music Network’s choral music workshop stood and joined in. While some were seated together — a row of women in the center orchestra section — most were in pairs or even alone. There were singers in the boxes and the balconies. Surprising as it may have seemed to audience members whose neighbors rose to sing, the practice chimes with a custom dating back to Bach’s time. The congregation didn’t only listen; they participated in an active way.

Voices of Music

I wish I could report that all this resulted in a fine and memorable Saint John Passion. But the deficiencies of the enterprise added up as the evening progressed. One problem was the scale of the house. With the large Symphony Chorus seated in semicircle around the small band, the orchestral playing was often more rumor than reality. The balance issues between the vocal forces and the delicate Baroque timbres never resolved in the large house.

Ross Hauck

With one notable exception, the contributions of the vocal soloists disappointed. Tenor Ross Hauck delivered the long narrative commentary of the Evangelist in a compellingly cadenced recitative. In everything from discursive long paragraphs (including one on burial practices) to connective narrative tissue, to he-said/they said set-ups for dramatic moments large and small, Hauck held focus. His voice rose and fell with a kind of heightened naturalism; his singing landed like a great stage actor’s transfixing speech. Hauck drove the story along, through Jesus’s encounter with Pilate and a rabble of scorners taunting Jesus as “dear King of the Jews” on his way to the cross. (Charges that this Passion’s anonymous text is tainted with anti-Semitism are not without merit.)

The other soloists, all members of the Symphony Chorus, lacked the technical chops and/or expressive heft to make the arias and ariosos much more than musical dead zones. Soprano Michele Kennedy fared best, in “I follow you likewise with happy steps.” Her piping sweet voice partnered nicely with the meandering traverse flute lines of Emi Ferguson and Vicki Melin. The deft and responsive cellist William Skeen gave it his all throughout.

As for the audience singers, it may have been more gratifying for them than for those nearby. Sing-along Messiahs are one kind of bad idea, for this nonsinger; a singalong Passion goes beyond the pale.

Ending as strongly as it began, the evening closed with the Symphony Chorus in glowing form. They followed the benedictory calm of “Rest well, you blessed limbs” with the aspirational ache of “Ah, Lord, let your dear little angel.” Bohlin’s mastery of phrasing and dynamics were on full display, as the final verses of the closing chorale burst forth in a praise song of hope and eternal charity.