Vivid, Theatrical St. John Passion Keys Bach Festival

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Alexander Weimann conducted the Pacific Baroque Orchestra, the Vancouver Camerata Singers, and soloists including British tenor Thomas Hobbs as the Evangelist in J.S. Bach’s ‘St. John Passion.’ (Performance photos by Jan Gates)

By David Gordon Duke

VANCOUVER – The second summer Bach Festival presented by Early Music Vancouver concluded in fine style with a performance of J.S. Bach’s St. John Passion on Aug. 11 at the Chan Centre for the Arts on the campus of the University of British Columbia. Although this is a new project, the festival grows out of a long Early Music Vancouver tradition of summer performances, courses, and workshops. Under artistic director Matthew White, change has become a byword of the organization – sometimes subtle, sometimes more radical.

Baritone Sumner Thompson sang the words of Jesus: Calm, refined, and assured.

In past summers, many performance opportunities flowed from musicians and educators doing double duty during their visits to the West Coast. White has pursued a strategy of forging links with the ever-growing number of early-music exponents living in the immediate region (British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon), with visits from mainly European super-groups. The festival’s emphasis again this year on the music and legacy of J. S. Bach appears, on the surface at least, to be a narrowing of EMV priorities, which have always been extraordinarily broad. Summer concerts in past years included music from the medieval era right up to historically informed performance of music by Brahms.

Despite this tighter focus, the willingness to expand well beyond conventional early music horizons (and attitudes) continues. The 2017 festival offered plenty of Bach in just under two weeks. But there were also programs that highlighted context and legacy. Guest performers Ensemble Cinquecento, for example, presented music from 16th-century England; Gli Angeli Genève offered a wondrous program of The Fountains of Israel (1623), a madrigal cycle by Johann Hermann Schein, Bach’s predecessor at the Thomaskirche. Other events traced Bach’s influence on 19th-century masters, and, in a controversial opening night program, cellist Matt Haimovitz played new works keying off of Bach’s incomparable cello suites by a quartet of contemporary composers: Philip Glass, Vijay Iyer, David Sanford, and Du Yun.

Soprano Jenny Högström with Alexander Weimann at harpsichord.

The festival performance of the St. John Passion also demonstrated some new approaches and attitudes, bringing together three somewhat disparate groups. The venerable Vancouver Cantata Singers (a semi-professional group just poised to celebrate its 60th anniversary) was invited to sing most of the choral numbers and all the chorales. A local period-instrument ensemble, the Pacific Baroque Orchestra, provided the core of instrumental support, augmented by a significant number of out-of-town stringers. The solo work (and a few short but memorable choruses) went to the fine singers of Gli Angeli Genève: sopranos Jenny Högström and Aleksandra Lewandowska, countertenor Alex Potter, tenor Robert Getchell, baritone Sumner Thompson, and the Angels’ founder/director, bass Stephan MacLeod. British tenor Thomas Hobbs essayed the pivotal  role of the Evangelist; the Pacific Baroque Orchestra’s Alexander Weimann directed.

Ad hoc blends of this sort can be especially tricky. Will the imported experts hopelessly outshine the locals? Can a complex work like the Passion be put together in just a few days of intense rehearsal? Despite the occasional moment of unevenness, the basic whole indeed proved far greater than the sum of its parts.

The plum alto roles went to Alex Potter.

Singing the words of Jesus, Sumner Thompson (no stranger to EMV audiences) was calm, refined, and assured. Though soprano Högström had relatively few opportunities to shine, she was a standout, with a clear, fresh sound and elegant style. The plum alto numbers went to Potter. His highly individualistic sound and almost shocking intensity made an indelible impression; his manner was at odds with most of his colleagues, but striking, memorable, and, ultimately, apt.

Hobbs’ work was, by any standard, exceptional. His remarkable diction, beautiful sound, undemonstrative flair for making every word tell, and a marvelously informed style with no affectations were consistently evident. He owned the evening.

Conductor Alexander Weimann was completely prepared to let his soloists off the leash, knowing he could trust their individuality and authority. His ability to turn in a flash from conductor to continuo harpsichordist was made with such confidence that one scarcely considered the achievement as anything out of the ordinary. But it was, as is his deep-rooted understanding of and sympathy for Bach’s work.

Weimann’s manner with his orchestra and choir, well prepared by Vancouver Cantata Singers’ artistic director Paula Kremer, was more defined but hardly authoritarian. His excitement for the score was palpable, as was his willingness to plumb its depths. Above all, there was a sense of a story to be told. Bach’s work is theatrical in the best sense of the word, highlighting meaning and wringing out emotion.

Alexander Weimann conducted the orchestra and chorus.

A significant part of how Weimann achieved his magic was pacing. Over the course of his time in Vancouver, local audiences have grown familiar with the purposeful way he creates an evening’s trajectory, whether in a multi-composer show or in a single great work. He allows few if any pauses between sections. Featured performers move to the front of the stage with dispatch, often during introductions and postludes. The result is a sort of subtle relentlessness; listeners get the feeling of an inexorable force driving the music – and the story – forward to its preordained conclusion. When there was a rare, intentional pause (particularly the one after the death of Christ), the effect was shattering.

This was a sterling demonstration of how a medium-size organization in a mid-sized city can achieve great things. The bringing together of local and international forces carried its risks. The common purpose shown by all involved in the enterprise was a lesson in artistic commitment as well as a demonstration of remarkable music-making.

David Gordon Duke contributes reviews and essays to The Vancouver Sun and American Record Guide. He is academic coordinator at the School of Music, Vancouver Community College and teaches at the University of British Columbia. 

Date posted: August 16, 2017

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