March 22, 2023

Princeton Pro Musica Performs Monumental Bach “Passion” at Full Strength

By Nancy Plum

After three years of stop-and-start choral performance, Princeton Pro Musica has returned to what the ensemble does best — presenting choral/orchestral masterworks. This past Sunday, just in time for the composer’s 338th birthday, the 80-voice chorus performed Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. John Passion. Led by Pro Musica Artistic Director Ryan James Brandau and accompanied by the early music period orchestra La Fiocco and six vocal soloists, the singers of Pro Musica well demonstrated why pieces such as this have been their mainstay for the past 40 years.

Bach’s Johannes-Passion musically set the “passion narrative” of the suffering and death of Jesus as recorded in the canonical gospel of the apostle John. Bach illuminated John’s texts with arias, recitatives, and choruses, dramatically led by an Evangelist representing John, as well as the characters of Jesus and Pontius Pilate. In Sunday afternoon’s performance, Princeton Pro Musica and La Fiocco were joined by soloists Steven Caldicott Wilson singing the role of the Evangelist, Will Doreza as Jesus, and Jesse Blumberg singing the role of Pilate. Soprano Madeline Apple Healy, alto Robin Bier, and tenor Eric Finbarr Carey rounded out a vocal quartet with Doreza to provide additional musical commentary on the text.

The source of the libretto for this work is unclear; it is possible that Bach himself compiled the poems, non-liturgical texts and chorales to complement the Biblical texts. The opening chorus of St. John Passion set the theological tone for the entire piece, opening with block choral chords proclaiming “Lord, our ruler.” This type of homophonic chorus is right in Pro Musica’s wheelhouse, as the ensemble sang the block chords decisively.

The Evangelist tells the passion story through recitative secco, a musical form in which a singer is accompanied by a continuo ensemble of lower string and keyboard instruments. In Sunday’s performance, the continuo was comprised of cellist Rebecca Humphrey, viola da gamba player Donna Fournier (who also doubled on cello), violone player Benjamin Rechel, lutenist Daniel Swenberg, harpsichordist Lewis Baratz, and portative organist Joyce Chen. As the Evangelist, Wilson carried almost all of the dramatic narrative and although beginning with a lighter sound, warmed up to the role quickly, maintaining strong and clean vocal lines to transmit the massive amount of text. Wilson shifted moods especially well in the closing sections of the Passion. From the podium, Brandau wisely allowed that some of the music of the Evangelist and continuo unfold unconducted, as Wilson and the accompanying musicians kept the flow moving well.

The other two major characters in Bach’s work were Jesus, sung by baritone Doreza, and Pilate, sung by baritone Blumberg. Blumberg was a stand-out performer of the concert, singing with animation, clean runs and a vocal tone full of color. As Jesus, Doreza’s role was reactionary, often answering questions posed by other characters. Doreza seemed to be aiming for a humble portrayal of Jesus, with the result that he was often hard to hear, although it was clear that he was capable of much more sound.

Blumberg doubled as the bass in the vocal quartet providing commentary on the story, joined by soprano Healey, alto Bier, and tenor Carey. Carey was another exceptional soloist in this performance, well capturing the desperation of the text in a Part I aria. In a later aria acknowledging God’s mercy amidst the turmoil of the passion story, Carey was particularly expressive and found a great deal of dynamic range, all elegantly accompanied by two viole d’amore played by Susann Iadone and Edmundo T. Ramirez.

Soprano Healey had two arias in the work, which she sang with a vocal tone that was almost too light at times. Her top register was her best asset, with the Part I “Ich folge dir” gracefully accompanied by Baroque flutists Eve Friedman and Susan Graham. Alto Bier showed her trademark rich singing in the dramatic cornerstone aria “Es ist vollbracht,” which she sang as a poignant commentary in musical dialogue with gamba player Fournier.

The chorus played a number of characters throughout the work, with all movements showing solid preparation. Although the choral articulation in the opening chorus was a bit heavy, quick-moving lines later in the work were smoothly handled. The chorales interpolated into the text were sung with a solid block of sound, and a chamber chorus within the full ensemble sang brisker choruses nimbly. Unusual for Richardson Auditorium in this performance was the difference in sound balance between the balcony and orchestra levels. Unfortunately, balcony audience members may have missed some of the more subtle passages of music that were lost in the orchestral palette, but Pro Musica’s faithful audience clearly enjoyed hearing this rarely-heard Bach masterpiece.