Vocabularies and revelations about John

A stewed Charles Blandy (file photo)

Each year at Passiontide, this member of the race perpetually condemned as Deiciders, must weigh his personal and conventional self-loathing my culpa against those our culpas liberal and revisionist Christians who claim that all men are created equal as killers of Christ. Of course we did. We had been chosen for this role. To suggest otherwise would be to insult God. There would be no Christian faith if a group had not done the will of the Lord 2,000 years ago. Luther and his heirs should thank us, not burn us.

Are the opposing choices to endure or enjoy Bach’s performances The Passion according to Saint John depending on whether you have to get into Bach’s head about theology, or is it enough to venerate the composer of Es ist vollbracht as an emissary of the divine despite the shocking texts? After all, does it matter that the text that accuses the Jews of crucifying our Lord is amended to say that “the people” did? We know whodunit. Why euphemize?

Replacing the word “Jews” with “the people” (once upon a time Emmanuel Church did this in the readings) is like putting a fig leaf on Michelangelo’s David and just as wrong as banning texts and offensive characters in our literary canon. Better go JohnLuther’s Passion text (and perhaps Luther’s “Jews and Their Lies”) are intact as visionary artifacts, while not hesitatingly acknowledging them as warnings of the murderous consequences of resulting blood libels. And that’s precisely what Emmanuel Music did ahead of last night’s sold-out reverential performance – contextualize with the obligatory discussion led by the rabbi, while posting explanations and apologies. [HERE]- but not by stunning Bach with text changes.

I postulate that that’s enough to surrender to the very universal human suffering of Jesus which Bach so brilliantly clothed with lasting multidimensional musical meaning.

Bach’s Passion music comes fully alive against the backdrop of the painful tensions of human history and experience in the here and now. In this sense, his music is radical: it goes to the root of human tragedy and greatness – in which the Divine dwells and yearns to be discovered, heard and felt (Passion/Com-passion). Edgar Brennikmeyer

If Bach Passion according to Saint John pale before his Matthew, the same goes for all other man-made scores. And it’s not just because the Matthew employs two orchestras, two organs and two choirs, but rather its great complexity and inspiration. In response to my appeal, Bach scholar Christoph Wolff wrote:

It is absolutely true that the Passion according to Saint Matthew advances harmony like no other work. It’s the overall tonal range and certain harmonic details that make it unique. The earlier Passion according to Saint John is particular in itself, notably by the dramatic rhythm and the central role played by the biblical text. I wouldn’t call him St-Jean conventional in its tonal plan but it begins in G minor and ends in C minor, flats dominant. The more epic design of the Saint Matthew gives the composer of the Well-Tempered Clavier the ability to exaggerate with respect to his tonal range: beginning in E minor (with a built-in G major chorale) in the sharp region and ending in C minor (in the flat region). Between the two, he touches on practically all the keys of the two modes, the most extreme of the narrative. “Ach Golgatha” in A-flat major (but over the course of the piece using bass notes like G-flat, C-flat and F-flat).

The fact that the Emmanuel Music Chorus and Orchestra has been in existence for 52 years is a tribute to an ever-evolving cadre of singers and performers committed to making sacred music a reality in the context of worship in a sacred place. Preparing a Bach cantata and service music each week while providing the time and energy to master an edifice like the John Passion, particularly on the busy days approaching Holy Week, would impose any together. This one took on a challenge that few other church choirs and instrumentalists could match for a special occasion, let alone week after week.

Emmanuel Music approaches Bach with mostly modern instruments and well-informed period sensibilities. The mostly standing musicians (they did in all great numbers) began the opening chorus introduction sonorously, with a well-defined swirl and pulse from the sure hands of bandleader Ryan Turner, though he did not foreshadow the subsequent turmoil as much as others have. The choir of 13 entered with a loud salute to the “Lord…whose fame is glorious in all the lands”. But the German fricatives failed to pierce the masks of the singers. Turner carefully shaped the sound of the chorus, but indicated what came across as a staircase dynamic of the orchestra.

Detail of the altarpiece of the Emmanuel Church.

All concern for enunciation vanished when the evangelist Charles Blandy presided unmasked (like all the soloists) at the bronze pulpit. Singing in firm, tireless, ardent tones and idiomatic German, he elucidated the Passion of the Christ as if speaking directly to us, while evoking the late Karl Dan Sorensen, Boston’s go-to evangelist for decades. And its recitatives, imbued with the extremely flexible, sensitive and nuanced continuo playing of cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer, double bass Randall Zigler and organist Michael Beattie, filled half of the oratorio’s more than 100 minutes with zealous brilliant.

The placement of Jesus (baritone David Tinervia) behind the orchestra in a resonant part of the choir put him at a disadvantage. When he had to project himself onto a standing orchestra and choir, the apparent force of his delivery seemed thwarted. Because all of the other main characters sang from a lectern across from the evangelist, their tones came through to us undisturbed. Could Jesus have stood in an elevated position near the Last Supper altarpiece? I suspect recording will fix this balance issue.

Although the work comprises 40 well-divided numbers, the performance never seemed episodic. Interactions between the evangelist, principals, commentating soloists, and chorus were seamless and inevitably in a quietly delightful manner, but there is rarely great drama. We didn’t sense fear and anticipation in the opening, nor did the chorus shout “Crucify him!” as if they meant it. The playing and singing proved consistently reliable and sonorous, but rarely lifted our hedgehogs or summoned our tears.

We frankly expected more commitment and immersion in the roles of the Emmanuel Music Chorus, especially since the nine people who came out to sing arias or brief solos demonstrated these qualities. Very rarely, such as towards the end of the opening chorale of part 2 when they emphatically spat out the words “Verlacht, verhört und verspielt (mocked, despised and bespat)”, the chorus gave priority to words and characters on the line.

Part of my disappointment may have to do with the small size of the chorus, and it didn’t help that the masks hid the facial expressions. But from my third-row seat, I should have been able to record the combustion in a lighter dynamic range if there had been any. And the choral interjection 21a: “Hail to you, dear King of the Jews! came to us without irony. Bach would not have expected such a beautiful song. Again and again, however, the evangelist presented textural theatrics as his personal monodrama.

And it’s also worth noting how a choir including so many solo voices could also blend together. Although to some extent the sections seemed to take on the colorations of the individuals. Olivia Miller definitely marked the four-soprano section as her own, and Dana Whiteside clearly powered the bass.

A messy highlight quote would include the moment when, on an incredibly chromatic-sounding rising baseline in the cello, the Evangelist sang of Peter: “…just then the crew of the rooster / and Peter remembered the words of Jesus / and went out and wept bitterly, followed by a tenor aria in which Omar Najmi interrupted the show with an unrestrained delivery, right down to the rafters of Peter’s psychoanalysis by Bach. At 24 b, choral interjections of “Wohin?” in Dana Whiteside’s resonant and flexible aria “Hurry you tempted souls” created for an revealing, almost celestial atmosphere. The sweet sounds of Michael Leopold’s theorbo and the viola da gamba by Laura Jeppesen sensitively supported Carrie Cheron’s deep sadness in “Es ist Vollbracht!” Her beautiful diminuendo sealed the deal after David Tinervia’s luxurious, unforced legato evoked the final “Here…” from Jesus.

The obligatory duo between violinists Heather Braun-Bakken’s and Rose Drucker wonderfully contributed theorbo and basso continuo supporting the subtle and refined baritone Will Prapestis in “Contemplate my soul”. Tenor Jonas Budris, who sang softly whenever called upon, found a more moving effect when the curtain tore and the rock crumbled.

Mahler’s conductors often cut the jolting, sanctimonious final sextet of Don Giovanni, choosing instead to end with the Don’s punishment and descent into conflagration. In last night John, the closing chorus “Rest Well” deeply imbued with varieties of religious experiences. If the show had ended with this “lullaby” instead of the final chorale, we could have left the church without a word, having been lightly scourged and then well healed.

Lee Eiseman is the editor of the Spy