Apollo’s Fire Set To Tour Gripping ‘St. John Passion’

Apollo’s Fire performed Bach’s ‘St. John Passion’ at Cleveland’s Trinity Cathedral and other Northern Ohio stops.
(Photo by Erica Brenner)
By Daniel Hathaway

SHAKER HEIGHTS, Ohio — Before taking Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. John Passion on tour to venues in New York and Michigan, artistic director Jeannette Sorrell and the singers and period instrumentalists of Apollo’s Fire gave four Cleveland-area performances of the 1724 work in early March. The ensemble’s lively and gripping version of the oratorio at First Baptist Church in Shaker Heights on March 4 was an engaging attempt to underscore the drama inherent in the two-hour narrative of the Passion of Jesus Christ through some effective staging both of the soloists and chorus.

Artistic director Jeannette Sorrell (Sisi Burns)
Conductor Jeannette Sorrell: skillful, often brisk pacing. (Sisi Burns)

The pietist Lutheran congregations who attended performances of Bach’s Passions on the several Good Fridays when he presented them in Leipzig were by no means passive observers. They were drawn into the story through the use of familiar hymns that implicated them — and all humankind — in the betrayal and crucifixion of Jesus. Sorrell went a bit farther by dispatching eight chorus members to the side aisles during the turbulent crowd scenes at the beginning of Part Two, surrounding the audience and virtually making them part of the seething mob.

The soloists who portrayed Jesus (Jesse Blumberg), Simon Peter (Christian Immler), Pilate (Jeffrey Strauss), and some incidental roles had memorized their parts and physically confronted one another. So did the chorus (Apollo’s Singers), whose members turned to Peter to shame him with a chorale just after he had thrice betrayed his leader.

Because St. John Passion is more action-filled than the more contemplative St. Matthew setting, these enhancements worked well. The St. John story stops only infrequently for reflection in the form of solo arias (one of them accompanied by chorus), so the narrative arch is more continuous.

Nicholas Phan negotiated 'Ach, mein Sinn' with ease.
Tenor Nicholas Phan negotiated ‘Ach, mein Sinn’ with ease.

Beyond these innovations, the dramatic success of the performance hinged on Sorrell’s skillful, often brisk pacing of the music and Nicholas Phan’s superb storytelling as the Evangelist. (He did double duty, singing the tenor arias as well). Phan controlled the narrative admirably, pressing ahead when circumstances demanded it and pulling back when the action calmed down. Seemingly indefatigable, and singing with a healthy, robust tone, he related the Gospel story engagingly and — as in the last two recitatives, when Jesus’ body is prepared for burial — affectingly.

For his arias, Phan put down his score and became a virtuosic soloist. “Ach, mein Sinn,” at the end of the first part, is a killer, but Phan negotiated its craggy lines and plaintive cries with ease. No less challenging (because of its complexity and length) was “Erwäge,” a da capo aria that can seem endless; Phan moved it along nicely, joined by the graceful viola d’amore playing of Olivier Brault and Karina Schmitz.

Soprano Amanda Forsythe
Soprano Amanda Forsythe: hauntingly lyrical. (Arielle Doneson)

Soprano Amanda Forsythe sounded clear and supple in “Ich folge dir gleichfalls” and hauntingly lyrical in “Zerfließe.” Countertenor Terry Wey  was best in his soulful “Es ist vollbracht.” Immler ably managed the low tessitura of the bass aria “Eilt,” to which the upper voices of the chorus added inquisitive and rhythmically flawless repetitions of “Wohin.” Instrumental obbligatos by oboists Debra Nagy and Kathryn Montoya and gambist Rebecca Landell Reed were standouts.

Apollo’s Singers were riveting from the “Herr, Herr, Herr” chords of the opening chorus straight through the chiseled contrapuntal lines of the mob to the final “Ruht wohl” lullaby at the tomb and Bach’s wonderful — almost Mahlerian — touch of a final chorale in the form of a child’s prayer. Sorrell predetermines every detail of her performances, and the hymns were no exception. She dictated a variety of nuances that the chorus delivered with fine attention to detail and unflaggingly crisp diction. Occasionally, Sorrell dropped the instrumental doublings, giving certain chorales special emphasis.

The continuo department (cellists Reed and René Schiffer, bassist Sue Yelanjian, and organists Peter Bennett and Sorrell herself, on a second portative organ) gave stylish support. Oddly, Sorrell chose not to use a bassoon in the orchestra, something Bach expressly called for in the score.

Lots can go awry in a piece of this complexity, but this absorbing performance was nearly flawless. The few elements that didn’t come off so successfully were closely related to what worked really well. The pacing constantly drove the drama forward, yet some passages — like the crowd scenes with singers in the aisles — sounded more hectic than animated. And the often-mannered playing style of Apollo’s Fire’s doesn’t translate so well to large acoustical spaces. The surging string parts in the opening chorus sounded more like a murmur.

Apollo’s Fire will tour St. John Passion to St. Paul’s Chapel of Trinity Parish in New York City on Saturday, March 12 at 8:00 p.m. (for tickets and more information, call 212-866-0468 or go online); to Purchase College of SUNY in Purchase, NY, on Sunday, March 13 at 3:00 p.m. (914-251-6200 or online); and to the University Musical Society of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor (performance at St. Francis Church, 2250 E. Stadium Blvd.) on Tuesday, March 15 at 7:30 p.m. (734-764-2538 or online).

Daniel Hathaway is founder and editor of ClevelandClassical.com.