March 18, 2020

The Dryden Ensemble: A 25th Anniversary “Passion” For Music

To the Editor:

This past Friday night The Dryden Ensemble performed J.S. Bach’s “St. John Passion” at All Saints’ Church in Princeton as the final concert of their 25th Anniversary Season. It was a more than fitting way to end the season, performed with 25 musicians, many of whom were original Dryden ensemble members. This iconic work, one of Bach’s signature works, requires both a thorough knowledge of Baroque music and outstanding musicianship to be able to get through one and a half hours of a piece where every musician is continually exposed.

The Dryden Ensemble was more than up to the task, moving some of the audience to tears at its conclusion.

I have heard the Dryden Ensemble since its founding and remember with fondness concerts at the Princeton University Chapel with the late Dr. William Scheide, world expert on Bach, giving pre-concert talks to illuminate the pieces about to be heard. Played always on copies of period instruments, authenticity is a mark of the ensemble. Founder Jane McKinley, an expert on the Baroque oboe da caccia, assured from the beginning that there would be no compromises in this ensemble’s dedication to authenticity.

That written, it would take too much space to salute all of those involved, but exemplary performances cannot be ignored. There were only eight singers making up both chorus and soloists, which lent what was undoubted authenticity to this performance. Tenor Jason McStoots sang the Evangelist with perfect conviction, as did bass William Sharp as Jesus. But as each member of the chorus took their turns as soloists through the entire piece, and then stepped back to blend with such warmth as a chorus, one was immersed in the story from John of the betrayal of Jesus through his crucifixion. Director Scott Metcalfe brought musical emotion to a height rarely experienced, with appropriate silences between sections to allow the music to soak into one’s soul. Brava/o to sopranos Laurie Heimes and Margaret Rood, mezzo-soprano Kristen Dubenion-Smith and Kim Leeds, tenor Aaron Sheehan (an alum of the 2003 Dryden performance of this piece), and baritone Brian Ming Chu.

The 17-seat orchestra was led by principal violinist Vita Wallace (also playing viola d’amore) providing the subtle lead string in the major orchestral segments (also an alum of the 2003 performance). No Bach piece exists without a steady continuo, underpinning solos throughout, provided in this performance by original Dryden members Lisa Terry on viola da gamba with portatif organist Webb Wiggins, whose 25th anniversary performances created support and solo lines of absolute musical perfection.

We, in the Princeton area, are incredibly fortunate to have many musical ensembles of the highest caliber, professional, amateur, and academic. A shining star of these, gratefully celebrating a much-deserved milestone of making outstanding early music of the Baroque period over 25 years, is The Dryden Ensemble.

John C. Baker
Shirley Lane, Lawrenceville