Dryden Ensemble Broadcasts Pre-Pandemic 25th Anniversary Bach Performance
By Nancy Plum
One of the last musical events to take place in Princeton last March before the coronavirus shutdown was a performance by the Dryden Ensemble of Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. John Passion. The Baroque specialty orchestra had planned to present Bach’s monumental choral/orchestral work at Princeton’s All Saints’ Church on Saturday, March 14, 2020 to celebrate the organization’s 25thanniversary. With a state shutdown called for that day, the organization hurriedly turned its dress rehearsal the night before into an open performance to a limited audience. For those who missed the concert, the Dryden honored what would have been Bach’s 336th birthday this past Sunday with an online broadcast of the performance from last March. Conducted by Scott Metcalfe, musical and artistic director of the Boston-based vocal ensemble Blue Heron, this performance featured eight vocal soloists and an orchestra of 20 period instrumentalists to present a concert just as relevant and worthwhile now as it was a year ago.
Presenting the Passion narrative from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John during Holy Week had been a liturgical tradition for centuries by the Baroque era. Initially read in church, the Biblical narrative was subsequently chanted and eventually set polyphonically as choral music evolved. By the 18thcentury, Passion settings were elaborate works with instruments and choruses, with vocal soloists taking on character parts. Bach may have composed as many as five Passion settings, with only two surviving in performable form. At the time Bach composed this work, he was in the early years of his position as cantor to four major Lutheran churches in Leipzig. It is hard to believe in these days of Bach reverence that he was somewhat down the list of choices for this position — following his hiring, one of the local council members complained that they would now have to “make do with mediocrity.” Bach composed the multi-movement piece to be performed in two parts, separated by the Good Friday sermon.
Bach’s setting of the Passion as described in the Gospel of John is interspersed with commentary on the story in the form of arias or Lutheran chorales setting religious poems and other texts written specifically for this piece. Major choruses bookend the series of arias, recitatives, and chorales, with the drama conveyed by an Evangelist, Jesus, and Pilate. Two sopranos, two altos, and one tenor fill out the storyline, which begins at the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday and ends at the tomb provided by Joseph of Arimathea. In this performance, presented in German with English subtitles, the Ensemble recreated the piece with just eight singers handling all of the vocal material, bringing together an octet well-experienced in 18th-century performance practice. Leading the cast as the Evangelist was tenor Jason McStoots, who has a long history of specializing in Baroque opera. William Sharp, singing the role of Jesus, is no stranger to opera and choral works on Princeton stages; and baritone Brian Ming Chu, singing the role of Pilate, has made his professional career in the Philadelphia area. Although these three singers carried much of the dramatic action, the other five vocalists were no less busy.
As the Evangelist, a role which carries much of the musical weight of the piece through lightly-accompanied recitative, McStoots sang with an agile and clear sound, articulating the text well and ending phrases stylistically delicately. McStoots sang the language, knowing instinctively when unimportant words could be de-emphasized, in the process moving the drama along at a good speed. Sharp was commanding as Jesus, singing sensitively when required, especially in a particularly peaceful aria toward the end of the piece. As Pilate, Chu demonstrated a wide gamut of musical and physical expressions, well conveying the character’s complexity of thoughts, ranging from initial gentleness to fear. Chu’s performance of the Part II aria sending the crowd to Golgotha was particularly ferocious with expertly-handled vocal runs.
Each of the other five singers had a turn at singing arias within the piece, and all combined to create a chorus representing various crowds within the story. Soprano Margot Rood demonstrated a particularly sparkly and animated vocal sound with crisp diction, conveying the Part I aria “Ich folge dir” with joy, accompanied by Baroque flutists Eve Friedman and David Ross. Mezzo-sopranos Kim Leeds and Kristen Dubenion-Smith were dramatic and expressive, yet clean in the vocal ornamentation so prevalent in the music of Bach. Dubenion-Smith closed the Passion story effectively with the poignant aria “Es ist vollbracht,” pensively sung with continuo accompaniment marked by equally as poignant playing by Lisa Terry on viola da gamba. Tenor Aaron Sheehan showed an effortless vocal ability, especially in the reflective aria “Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken,” the longest aria in the piece. Sheehan was expressively accompanied in this aria by strings and continuo, including Vita Wallace and Edmond Chan each playing a rarely-heard viola d’amore. Soprano Teresa Wakim reflected well on the chaotic scene toward the end of the work with a rich soprano voice, accompanied by another rarely-heard instrument — the oboe da caccia.
Conductor Scott Metcalfe led the performance conducting without a baton, keeping the musical atmosphere mostly light while letting the drama come out on its own. The instrumentalists maintained tight control over the music, with relentlessly effective continuo playing by Terry, organist Webb Wiggins, and lute and theorbo player Daniel Swenberg, as well as the other strings.
The Dryden Ensemble’s performance of St. John Passion was initially presented on the eve of a shutdown and subsequent performance hiatus which has lasted a lot longer than anyone thought at the time. The camera work in the videotaping of this performance was particularly effective, considering no one could imagine that the organization might be replaying this a year later as a concert event. For those who tuned in on Sunday afternoon, the performance was surely a refreshing musical respite as winter turns to spring in the Princeton area, and people are beginning to think of live performance in the future.
The Dryden Ensemble’s performance of Bach’s St. John Passion will be available online until April 5. Information about accessing this performance can be found on the Dryden Ensemble website at drydenensemble.org.