As we move into the season of Christmas and the Nativity and their largely sacred musical connections, similar musical depictions of Christ’s last days provide an interesting juxtaposition.
That was exactly what happened with the presentation of Bach’s exquisite “St. John Passion,” presented by the Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart, courtesy of the Virginia Arts Festival, on Friday at St. Bede’s Catholic Church in Williamsburg.
Johann Sebastian Bach wrote the oratorio in 1724 for the Good Friday Vespers in Leipzig. Based largely on the Gospel of John, chapters 18 and 19, it tends to focus on two elements: Pontius Pilate and the passion, death, and burial of Christ. However, it does so with an ultimate message of the cross’s victory over death and everlasting peace, comfort and grace.
Most of the messages are delivered through dramatic arias and recitatives from the Evangelist (a wonderfully soulful tenor, Benedikt Kristjánsson), the rest through Christ and Pilate alike and beautifully sung by bass Peter Harvey and bass Tobias Berndt. Other inspiring contributions came from soprano Magdalene Harper and alto Marie Henriette Reinhold.
A 31-strong choir provided dramatic commentary on what was happening, working with and between the main singers. Everything held together the 23-strong baroque orchestra under the direction of Hans-Christoph Rademann, who is considered one of the world’s leading authorities on sacred works in the choral tradition.
It is necessary to describe the players to realize that this Gaechinger Cantorey by the Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart was one of those rare auditions of a perfectly assembled ensemble of singers and musicians. According to program notes, this ensemble was handpicked to form “perfectly blended early music.” And they did. The incredible purity of the flawless, crystal-clear choral sound and clear, collective orchestral playing was breathtakingly excellent. The balance between the entities has been rewarding in several of the primaries, despite very occasional projection issues.
Characteristic of these musical ingredients was Rademann’s graceful athleticism on the podium – athletic insofar as his directing was a full-body experience. Sometimes he would crouch from the deep knee position and stand on tiptoe; sometimes his hands served not so much to beat time as to evoke highly emotional responses from the choir and orchestra with outstretched palms (something like a cheerleader encouraging fans to cheer); at times he was a manifestation of Bach’s throbbing beats, his head and body moving with the flow. Music in motion, his was a full expression of physical and intense musical direction – his brilliantly and carefully chosen moments of silence between segments heightened the dramatic effect.
For those who remember Walter Cronkite’s You Were There television series, re-enactments of historical events, he ended each show with, “What day was that? A day like all days, filled with those events that change and illuminate our time…everything is as it was then, except that you were there.”
This was one of those moments. With this “St. Johannes-Passion”, supported by the printed text of the program (a bit more light for reading would have been useful), we were there and relived these tremendously dramatic times. It was a moving and terrifying feeling. The power of this heavenly performance was palpable and perfect, St. Bede provided spiritual focus and a delicate acoustic backdrop to this remarkable moment.
Echoing the remark above about the ‘Passion’ and Christmas music, St. Bede is a clear source of seasonal cheer, beginning with its Advent Festival of Lessons and Carols on November 30th at 7pm. The program will feature the St Bede Youth Choir, St Dunstan Ringers and St Cecilia Choir in a candlelit service with choral music, sacred readings and seasonal hymns.
The Virginia Arts Festival continues its Christmas gift of music in St. Bede on December 13 at 7:30pm with a repeat performance by the world-renowned Vienna Boys Choir.
The name alone brings a smile, knowing the charm and excellence of this delightful group. They are good for choral singing but seem perfect for the Christmas season and its sacred, traditional and folk music.
The next evening, December 14, St. Bede provides the setting for another holiday celebration, the Virginia Symphony Orchestra’s Holiday Brass program. An annual event in St Bede where members of the VSO horn section and some drummers kick off with music of the season.