In performance: St. John Passion
Cathedral Choir offers gripping Bach Passion
by Joe Banno
The performance of Bach’s “St John Passion” that Michael McCarthy conducted at the National Cathedral on Sunday moved with such speed, such urgent treatment of the score’s unfolding drama, the oratorio clocked in at less than two hours but never felt rushed or lightweight. The buoyancy and tender phrasing McCarthy drew from his Cathedral Baroque Orchestra, and the cohesion he created by minimizing pauses between movements, gave the musical storytelling a sense of inevitability.
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McCarthy knows how to “play” the Cathedral’s cavernous acoustic. Coaxing an incisive sound from the Cathedral Choir (a 45-member mixed ensemble of girl and boy trebles and adult male singers), he elucidated Bach’s writing with crisp attacks at phrase openings, punchy delivery of contrapuntal lines, and clear, forward placement of words. Yet none of that affected the Choir’s pure, bright blend, their evocative glow at the quietest moments, or the coiled energy they brought to the taunting passages for the bloodthirsty mob.
The vocal soloists were a solid group — considerably more than that in the case of Gillian Keith’s bell-like soprano and bass-baritone Craig Phillips’ elegantly turned phrasing. As the Evangelist, tenor Rufus Muller brought an ideal mix of callow tone and clarion power. And he added a layer of restrained acting to his performance — staring down Pilate while the chorus sang, or holding up a hand to silence the crowd to hear the cock crowing — which may sound precious on paper, but proved surprisingly compelling in performance.
— Joe Banno
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