Singers Unseen, Sober Tone Unstinting, ‘Passio’ Was Lengthy Challenge

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The Experiential Orchestra, founded and led by conductor James Blachly, performed Arvo Pärt’s ‘Passio’ at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. (Photos by Stefan Bunbury)

NEW YORK — John’s account of the death of Jesus was written long after the New Testament’s three prior Gospels. Its Passion section is briefer than theirs, and Jesus seems crankier in it than he does in the other versions. He argues with people, gives Pilate lip, and generally acts like a regular person in an awful situation. Pilate’s attempts to establish his own authority do not scare Jesus, whose responses suggest that he sees what’s coming and just wants to get on with it.

It is this Gospel’s version, called Passio, that Arvo Pärt chose to set in 1982 for chorus, two male soloists, organ, and chamber orchestra. The Experiential Orchestra, founded and led by conductor James Blachly, performed the work (Jan. 26 and 27) at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

Listeners who wanted to hear the performance lying down were invited to bring yoga mats

Blachly is the son of Alexander Blachly, whose small chorus, Pomerium, was once a fixture on the early-music scene, and Betsy, music teacher and percussionist. As a teenager, James sang alto in local choirs.

At the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, an opening choral prelude by Artefact Ensemble presented chants to set the mood for the Passion story. Sixteen singers performed each quarter of the prelude from a different side of the cathedral, facing the audience from a different angle. They were led by Benedict Sheehan, who has composed his own liturgy of St. John. The chants forecast the larger work about to be heard. Soft and modal, they possessed an element of stasis suited to the slow sonic decay of the huge cathedral space. But the tempos were slow. And Pärt’s sound is icy — like winter in his native Estonia, just across the water from Finland.

Sixteen singers, led by Benedict Sheehan, performed each quarter of the prelude from a different side of the cathedral, facing the audience from a different angle for each.

I wanted to really like Passio, with its somber harmony, but a solid hour and a half (20 minutes or more longer than versions posted on YouTube) of its stately, non-contrapuntal, gorgeous sonorities, rendered by an unseen solo vocal quartet with organ and a chamber group of winds and strings, sapped my energy. In Bach’s Passions, the enormous range of music rivets the listener to the drama until the end. I mean, a man was actually tried in these chapters, scourged and crucified. For the Pärt performance, discrete changes in dynamics were needed from the podium.

The libretto of the Passion text from the Gospel of St. John could be downloaded from the program’s web site to your cellphone, to be read before the somber musical work or squinted at during it.

James Blachly led the Experiential Orchestra, which he founded in 2009.

The chorus, in the rear, rose now and again to sing, but the soloists sat toward the back of the highly capable orchestra players, which may have worked for the instrumentalists but made the singers invisible to the listeners.

The vocal quartet was, unfortunately, hidden among the chamber musicians and probably couldn’t be seen from the several seating sections of St. John’s giant nave, which is among the largest anywhere. Listeners who wanted to hear the performance lying down were invited to bring yoga mats. (And a few days later, the famed high-wire artist Philippe Petit performed, as a benefit, a walk within the cathedral’s giant spaces.)

Two soloists, the Filipino bass Enrico Lagasca as Jesus and Haitham Haidar, a Lebanese-Palestinian tenor based in Montreal, as the Evangelist, were more successfully placed elsewhere, and lighted. They still sounded weak — Haidar more so — but online investigations of their other work in oratorio and opera displayed their voices as more penetrating; so the cavernous spaces of St. John’s were apparently not their friend.

The concert was offered as a tribute to peace and healing. Good luck with that.