Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 16
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
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Princeton Pro Musica Closes Season With Monumental Bach Passion

Nancy Plum

Princeton Pro Musica celebrated the close of its 30th anniversary season in grand style on Sunday afternoon as Music Director Frances Fowler Slade led the chorus and accompanying orchestra in a brisk and clean performance of J.S. Bach’s St. John Passion. This is the type of music Pro Musica does best, and Sunday afternoon’s concert in Richardson Auditorium demonstrated the finer performance points of this well-honed choral ensemble.

Part of the success of this performance was the influx of fresh vocal blood into the roster of soloists. Ms. Slade went well outside the local community for some of the five character soloists in this Passion, unearthing fresh, yet established talent in the vocal arena. Critical to any Bach Passion performance is the Evangelist, a tenor role which must have absolute control over the German language, music, and drama of the piece in order to accurately present the story and fuse the chorus, orchestra, and other soloists. Tenor Robert Petillo has a solid reputation as a Bach evangelist, as well as specializing in other obscure Baroque works. His current status as Senior Soloist for the U.S. Army Chorus lends an unusual twist to his career, also guaranteeing he would be a well-disciplined and studied singer.

In the extended Evangelist passages of the St. John Passion, not all the syllables are the same weight, and not all words are sung at the same speed. Listening to Mr. Petillo, one did not need to look at the text to know that something dramatic was about to happen; the speed and timbre of his delivery conveyed the appropriate mood. In particular, his declamation of such text as “geisselte” (“scourged”) and “weinete” (“wept”) was especially effective. The role of Jesus was solidly played by the always steady Elem Eley, and bass-baritone William Walker sang the role of Pilate with a commanding physical presence and sufficiently imposing voice.

The four soloists providing commentary on the story were all commendable in their ability to wait for long periods between their solos, and each brought an inventive approach to the performance. The key aria in this Passion is the Part Two “Es ist vollbracht,” reiterating Jesus’ final words on the cross. This aria contains a dramatic shift between the “night of sorrow” and the triumph of the “hero from Judah,” depicted musically by an abrupt change between the dramatic intensity of the opening text and the fierce coloratura phrases of the closing lines and back again. Mezzo-soprano Alyson Harvey, one of Philadelphia’s leading mezzos, easily handled these shifts, declaiming “es ist vollbracht” with laser-like intensity, then snapping the audience quickly into the joyfully triumphant (yet demanding to sing) final text. In this aria, Martha McGaughey provided subtle yet rich accompaniment on the viola da gamba, also playing with a straight intense tone.

Soprano Mary Ellen Callahan has a number of Mahler Symphony No. 8 solo performances to her credit (somewhat of an antithesis to Bach), raising the question of how she might find the right quality for this Passion. Choosing to sing from memory, Ms. Callahan created a dramatic character with her arias, singing “Ich folge dir” with the innocence of a youthful following disciple, and matching well with the flute, organ and cello accompaniment. Ms. Callahan’s chance to soar came in the Part Two aria “Zerfliesse, mein Herze,” again well accompanied by flutist Mary Schmidt and oboe d’amore player Jeremy Kesselman.

Tenor Tony Boutté was the hardest to hear in the hall, but along with conductor Slade achieved the necessary jarring effects in his first aria. Mr. Boutté’s voice was much more appreciable in his second aria, accompanied effectively by Ms. McGaughey and well balanced with the gamba and strings. Mr. Boutté had this aria especially well in hand, creating an impressive effect on the word “Regenbogen” (“rainbow”). Bass Dennis Blackwell’s voice spoke well in the hall, as he ended phrases gracefully with a very nice chamber ensemble of two violins, cello and organ.

The true star of any Pro Musica performance is always the chorus, and Ms. Slade had clearly trained her ensemble well in the responses and commentary the ensemble provided to the soloists. The chorus takes on a role full of mob mentality in the second part of this Passion, and the ensemble’s precise choral replies conveyed well the crowd gradually losing control over itself. Nice dynamic contrasts in the second verses of the chorales brought the drama back down to earth, even if just temporarily. No Bach work would be complete without at least one fugue, and the chorus was well prepared in the two small choral fugues in Part Two.

Over the past thirty years, Princeton Pro Musica has cemented its place in the community, as well as elsewhere in the choral field. It is always clear throughout the Pro Musica season that these singers are fully committed to their conductor and their ensemble, and likely will be for another thirty years to come.

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