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NMSO concert review: Bach, ``St. John Passion'', March 26, 1999

This review appeared in the Albuquerque Journal of March 28, 1999.

Symphony, chorus fill cathedral with Passion

by Joanne Sheehy Hoover

Friday evening Roger Melone and the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra and Chorus offered the welcome opportunity to hear one of music's great religious works, Bach's St. John Passion.

Despite the challenges of limited space in St. John's Episcopal Cathedral and some limitations in the performance, Melone managed to bring off a satisfyingly solid interpretation.

As it has in painting, the story of Jesus' crucifixion has been a recurring theme in music over the centuries. The Passion texts were originally read, both as a remembrance and a way of reinforcing Christ's teachings. Chanting by a single singer gradually gave way in the 13th century to increased resources, culminating five centuries later in Bach's richly varied settings.

Christ's Passion has continued to attract composers up to the present, from the unorthodox Jesus Christ Superstar of Andrew Lloyd Webber to a deeply traditional St. John Passion by Arvo Pärt.

Of the four Passions that Bach is known to have written, only two survive, the St. Matthew and the St. John. The St. Matthew, with its interchanges between double choirs, may be the more dramatic, but the St. John contains some of Bach's tenderest writing.

Melone wisely chose an English translation. The gain in immediacy for the audience more than compensates for the inevitable musical loss in Bach's precise word painting. In the role of the Evangelist, whose recitatives of the story provide critical continuity, tenor Karl Dent consistently used his sweet-toned voice with clarity and feeling. His poignant shaping of the word ``Golgotha,'' Hebrew for ``the place of a skull,'' the place where Christ was crucified, still echoes in the reviewer's memory.

Melone and the chorus got off to a slow, near ponderous start and gradually found their pace, producing a particularly effective second part. To fit the chorus into the space, Melone divided the singers into three sections, one behind the orchestra and the other two in wedges on either side behind him in the front rows of the church. An ingenious solution, but it took a while to adjust to the effect of two-thirds of the chorus's sound being projected forward as they sang with their backs to the audience. Once a certain loss in clarity was accepted, the chorus came across forcefully with its usual intelligence and vigor.

The sharply focused soprano Patti Spain and the stylistically smooth countertenor Dale Terbeek, both regular Melone soloists, ably handled their parts. Bass David Grogan, as Jesus, took a long time to open up and project his richly timbred voice with conviction.

Among the many lovely orchestral contributions were solos from flutists Valerie Potter and Sara Tutland, oboists Darrel Randall and Rhonda Bleck, cellist Carol Pinkerton, and violinists Krzysztof Zimowski and Anthony Templeton.

Next: NMSO concert review: Verdi, ``Four Sacred Pieces,'' Jan. 16, 1999
See also: New Mexico Symphony Orchestra Chorus: schedule and reviews, 1995–2011
Previous: NMSO concert review: Beethoven, ``Missa Solemnis,'' Oct. 15, 1999
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Last updated: 1999/03/28 21:59:27