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Smaller, But No Less Passionate

March 11, 2008

With Easter just around the corner, the timing seems about right for a performance of a passion by J.S. Bach, one of the genre’s great masters. But while Bach’s St. Matthew Passion might spring immediately to mind, the San Francisco Bach Choir opted for the shorter, less grandiose Johannes-Passion.
Too often overshadowed by its more famous cousin, the St. John Passion deserves wider recognition for its dramatic storytelling and the passionate idioms of Bach’s musical writing. Its virtues were laid bare in the hands of the San Francisco Bach Choir, under the baton of newly installed artistic director Corey Jamason, in an estimable and occasionally electrifying performance Sunday at San Francisco’s Calvary Presbyterian Church.

Perhaps better known locally as a harpsichordist, Jamason also proves to be a confident conductor of Baroque repertoire. He’s cultivated some pleasing qualities within S.F. Bach over the past several months: fine blend, good balance, and a warm, polished overall sound. If the group sometimes lacked vibrancy or was nettled by the odd imprecise entrance or unclear diction, such quibbles were more than offset by its solid fundamentals.

Most of the choral highlights came in the crowd scenes, where Bach’s musical writing is at its most visceral. Whether depicting soldiers on the lookout for Jesus, or an angry mob demanding his crucifixion, S.F. Bach conveyed the potency of these moments with considerable zest. It further brought a lush, reverent quality to the haunting final chorus “Ruht wohl” (Rest well), one of the Johannes-Passion’s signature pieces.

A sterling Baroque chamber orchestra, boasting several of the Bay Area’s brightest luminaries, supported the choir’s efforts. Aside from its unwavering ensemble contributions, individual members contributed masterly touches in solo sections throughout the program. Even the erudite program notes and carefully researched translations conveyed a sense of refinement.
Engaging Soloists
S.F. Bach deserves much credit for introducing audiences to a vibrant group of soloists, mostly fresh out of school and just embarking on their careers. As the Evangelist, tenor Craig Lemming boasted a bright tone, crisp diction, and an exuberant stage presence. Occasionally bordering on the histrionic, Lemming nonetheless forcefully conveyed the passion story, making him an appealing narrator.

Bass Kittinant Chinsamran proved a formidable interpreter in the roles of Pilate and Peter. His velvety tone and subtly engaging gestures made the graceful aria “Betrachte, meine Seel” (Ponder, my soul) a highlight of the evening. His compatriot Paul Murray added several fine contributions, singing the role of Jesus. Tenor Eric Thériault’s resonant sound might not fit perfectly with Baroque repertoire, but he brought a sobering, portentous quality to “Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücker” (Consider how his blood-tinged back), a sober depiction of Jesus’ suffering, with fine instrumental contributions from violinists Katherine Kyme and Cynthia Freivogel and cellist William Skeen.

The appealing mezzo-soprano Katherine Growdon offered gorgeous tone, lithe bearing, and subtly dramatic stage presence to “Es ist vollbracht” (It is accomplished), ably accompanied by viola da gamba player Elisabeth Reed. Better projection would have enhanced another aria, “Von den Stricken meiner Sünden” (From the bonds of my sins), but her simple, unaffected delivery of a sinner’s meditative reflection on salvation was joyful to behold.

Soprano Erica Schuller got off to a shaky start in “Ich folge dir gleichfalls mit freudigen Schritten” (I will follow you likewise with joyful step), her intonation errant and her tone lacking support. Considerably better was the later aria “Zerfliesse, mein Herze” (Dissolve then, my heart). Here, Schuller’s bright tone quality and intonation were both more secure, and her gossamer interpretive style went well with the text’s meaning.

Joseph Sargent holds a Ph.D. in musicology from Stanford University and teaches at the University of San Francisco.