Sunday, April 3, 2016

Indianapolis Symphonic Choir's 'St. John Passion' opens Heaven to us, closes Hell

Strait is the gate toward salvation, the Christian message reminds us, especially in the Protestant tradition, which proclaimed salvation by faith alone.

Yet J.S. Bach makes the opening movements of his great cantatas and the Passions so inviting, it's as if the door to paradise had been flung wide. Though difficult of access in actual life, the musical path to the paradise Bach establishes repeatedly welcomes sinners of all stripes.

Lilly Performance Hall, with projected cameos of the composer, at the performance's conclusion.
There's the brass-and-drums splendor that launches "Gott, der Herr, ist Sonn and Schild" (The Lord God is Sun and Shield), which I particularly enjoy for its accidentally Handelian cast. And there's the intricate double-choir opening of the "St. Matthew Passion"  — an invitation to mourn, with interposed one-word questions, both set against a chorale of boys' voices pleading for mercy. The layout indicates the expansiveness, in text and expression alike, of Bach's better-known Passion setting.

This gift for immediate summation is the case, certainly, with "Herr, unser Herrscher" (Lord, our master) in the "St. John Passion." So I thought Saturday night as Eric Stark led the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir in that opening chorus, accompanied by the Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra, at the DeHaan Fine Arts Center of the University of Indianapolis.

We know immediately what we are headed for: an emotionally wrenching account of Jesus' last days on earth, redeemed through the Savior's sacrifice by the promise of eternal life to believers. That first chorus sums it up: the intertwined oboes, their long phrases throwing out passing dissonances, indicate the agony to come against the steady pulse of the other instruments.
Eric Stark (shown conducting the ISC with the ISO).

 The choir overrides this unsettling backdrop with a majestic hymn of praise. Among several deft
interpretive touches was the sudden drop in dynamics with the plea to "show us through your Passion that you...have been glorified." Humiliation and glory exist side by side in this narrative with commentary, starting with that microcosmic first chorus.

The performance upheld the juxtaposition wonderfully, in both solo and choral statements. Michael Linert, as good as any male alto I ever expect to hear, was brilliant in his first aria, "Von den Stricken meiner Sünden," with the two oboes enriching the texture in a reminder of "Herr, unser Herrscher."
Evelyn Nelson's first solo, "Ich folge dich gleichfalls," had exemplary, well-governed fervor. The soprano's final showcase, "Zerfliesse, mein Herze" (Dissolve, my heart), likely intended to sound despairing to the point of fainting, simply came across as weak.

Dann Coakwell, a tenor required to sing three arias in addition to being continually at the forefront as the Evangelist, brought clarity of projection and full-throated emotion to his role. The scholar Walter Emery faults Bach for inviting the Evangelist to emote, calling it vulgar. Few commentators link Bach and vulgarity in the same sentence; today's concertgoers probably love the fact that so much of the Passion's passion is invested in the Evangelist. When Peter cries bitterly, you could hear it in Coakwell's performance; when Jesus is flogged, you could feel the lash flaying tender skin.

The two basses, vividly used in dialogue between Pilate and Jesus, were well characterized by David Rugger and Daniel Lentz, respectively. You always had the sense that something of great moment was happening between them. The human drama is heightened because the Gospel of John, notoriously, lets Pontius Pilate off pretty easy in the drama of Jesus' trial and crucifixion. The text's repeated labeling of the bloodthirsty, anti-Jesus people as Jews has had something to do with Christian prejudice over the centuries.

Yet, in the "St. John Passion,"  it's clear the connivance of Jesus' countrymen in his execution under Roman rule is meant to have a moral lesson for Christians in any era who hear this music. Saving your collective skin, as Jesus' people did in giving him over, doesn't count if you lose your soul. And that warning applies to collective and individual "skins" for all time. As one of the chorales pleads, drawing a lesson from Peter's threefold denial of Jesus, "Whenever I have done something evil, stir my conscience!"

One of this work's commentators takes it to task for choruses that are too long. Stark's control and the choir's discipline never gave that impression. Only the soldiers deciding to cast lots for Jesus' cloak rather than cut it up seem to ponder their decision excessively. But Bach had something interesting going on in this chorus that he couldn't bring himself to end too soon.

Nothing essential to the chorus' role seems to have escaped Stark's attention. They are crucial actors in both narrative and commentary. They are defiant shouting to Pilate: "We are not permitted to put anyone to death." When they call upon Jewish and Roman law to force the Roman governor to take the course they want, Bach gives the choir suggestions of fugue, that legalistic musical form.

The final chorus, "Ruht wohl," pours balm over the mourning for Jesus. The first time the "B" section came up, it was a little foggy, but the fog lifted the second time the opening of the gates of heaven was described. That's just as it should be; ditto for the plea for mercy in the concluding chorale. Stark hushed the choir for "let my body rest in its little sleeping chamber, completely in peace, without any sorrow and pain," then directed a slowing of tempo and slight increase in volume for the next phrase, "until the Last Day." This performance, from first to last, elaborated upon those lines' mixture of sorrow and promised elation so wonderfully foreshadowed in "Herr, unser Herrscher" — a Bach touchstone.

The orchestra sounded fine, with excellent work at the small organ by Thomas Gerber, seconded in the continuo role by principal cellist Christine Kyprianides. Her section mate, Erica Rubis, lent lovely support on viola da gamba to the tenor aria, "Erwäge, wie sein Blutgefärbter Rucken" (Consider, how his blood-tinged back) — the sort of text Emery found "disgusting." To be sure, there's more than a touch of the "Passion porn" of Mel Gibson in this work, but so much more of exaltation. That's the note that was sounded most enduringly in Saturday's performance.