There’s no other story like it. Betrayal, suffering, and death. Christ’s Passion is the dramatic finale of Jesus’ life on earth, retold in myriad ways. Whether one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s classic oratorios or a more modern musical telling (like Jesus Christ Superstar), the tale is dramatic and moving, regardless of personal faith. These works are theatre that is driven by some of the most compelling music fueling the storytelling.
Prepared to be moved by Bach’s St. John Passion as Resonance Works | Pittsburgh tells the story once more in full chorale majesty. While the cantata is sung in German with projected titles in English, the caliber of the singers gathered by conductor Maria Sensi Sellner sets up even classical oratorio neophytes to appreciate the Bach’s original language.
This concert represents how Sellner so expertly crafts programs showcasing such masterworks. Sellner’s artists are talented, established and rising stars; they are expressive actors, committed to the audience as well as their art.
Bach wrote this Passion, drawing on the Gospel of John, Lutheran hymns, and contemporary poetry that would have been familiar to the first audience who heard it on Good Friday in 1724—his first year as music director at St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig, Germany. Bach’s amazing talent at age 39 is well displaye here, and it seems astounding that he crafted his St. Matthew Passion just three years later. These two works are perhaps the most heard by the widest range of audiences as they are most often performed in the Lenten and Easter season. There are about 200 extant cantatas by Bach, created as he was constantly producing as a church staff composer. He implied his own faith by signing each, “For the glory of God.”
Oratorios of this scope are tackled only by choirs and organizations that can truly deliver the solo, orchestral, and chorale goods, and Resonance Works fits that bill.
Nine featured soloists are heard as characters including Jesus, Peter, and Pilate, performing arias that capture the amazing range of universal human themes represented in the days before the crucifixion. The intimacy of the program is reinforced by the collaborative approach while delivering the desired chorale variations in dynamics, expression and drama under Sellner’s baton.
As the Evangelist (who represents St. John), Joseph Gaines applies his expressive acting, impeccable diction, and commitment in a demanding role that includes a late aria–after singing throughout the entire piece. While Gaines has been heard often in Pittsburgh, Sellner intently sought out this in-demand tenor with whom she first worked on this same oratorio a decade ago. Gaines is very busy, delightfully providing exposition and commentary around the major points of St. John’s familiar, but nonetheless absorbing account.
As Jesus, Ivan Plazacic is another lovely actor-singer, here making his ResWorks debut during his graduate study in voice at Carnegie Mellon University. Plazacic’s warm baritone supports his character’s strength and resolve. We look forward to hearing more from Plazacic.
Baritone Joshua Jeremiah returns as ResWorks as Pilate. He is a compelling performer, rising to a powerful plea backed by the full chorus for Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seleen (Hurry, you besieged souls), when he sends Jesus and others to “embrace faith’s wings” and be crucified on the hilltop of Golgotha. In Mein teurer Heiland, lass dich fragen (Jesus, You who were dead), Jeremiah and chorus deliver powerful questions about faith and Christ’s sacrifice as a prayer.
Indeed it is Jesus’ followers and those exploring their faith who are predominantly heard in Bach’s beautiful arias. A distinguished cast of aria soloists include delightful sopranos Thespina Christulides and Katy Williams, superb mezzo sopranos Christina English and Corrie Stallings, and impressive tenors George Milosh and William Ottow. Each of these superbly talented singers are featured via arias that are exquisite and often familiar stand-alone pieces, let alone the effect when set in this sparkling masterwork. Likewise, you will want to follow these singers at Resonance Works and other music offerings.
As these six soloists are the core of a very powerful and expressive chamber chorus, their voices (with 22 others) contribute to the power and uniquely intimate experience of this masterwork. The chorus becomes the citizenry, singing as the mob quoted in scripture. Their cries intensify throughout the piece from identifying Jesus as the Nazarene to calling for his death by crucifixion in the most urgent and tumultuous chorus.
The Resonance Chamber Orchestra is once more populated with stellar strings, winds, and organ/continuo. Many of the 15 players are featured during arias calling for instrumental duets or lighter accompaniment. It’s a wonderful opportunity to experience how Bach crafted not only the vocal lines but instrumental parts that support much as a piano does in art songs.
In light of the preparation to present a work of this magnitude, it is appropriate to note that pianists Uliana Kozhevnikova and Karen Jeng Lin who worked during the company’s rehearsals.
Thanks to the flexibility of the Resonance Works team, our “sneak peek” at this weekend’s music took place at Sunday’s venue, Westminster Presbyterian Church, during a final dress rehearsal on Thursday. It was clear that despite long hours of rehearsal on Wednesday that this outstanding professional company was ready for two magnificent performances this weekend, each running about 2 hours with an intermission. In addition, consider Sellner’s comprehensive program note. Arrive a bit early for this valuable read before the concert.
St. John Passion opened Friday evening with an audience of more than 200 in Heinz Memorial Chapel, Oakland. The oratorio repeats on catch on Sunday, March 24 at 3 pm at Westminster in Upper St. Clair, a beautiful and acoustically pleasing venue. As these inspiring and elegant Bach works are not as often performed, fans of fine singing and choral masterpieces owe to themselves to get to this stellar concert. Tickets and details are online.
To read more about Bach’s St. John Passion and its context in his epic musical career, visit resources online including:
Photography Credit: Alisa Innocenti
Yvonne Hudson, a Pittsburgh-based writer, publicist, actor, and singer, joined PITR as a writer and adviser in February 2016. She began performing and writing during high school in Indiana, PA. The Point Park journalism grad credits her Globe editor for first assigning her to review a play. Yvonne is grateful to Dr. Attilio Favorini for master’s studies at Pitt Theatre Arts, work at Three Rivers Shakespeare Festival, and believing in her Shakespearean journey. When not working with nonprofits, this lifelong chorister sings with Calvary UM Church’s annual Messiah choir. Having played Juliet’s Nurse for Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks, Yvonne is now seen in her solo shows, Mrs Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson: The Poet Lights the Lamp. Goals: See all of Shakespeare’s plays in production and memorize more Sonnets. Fave quotes: “Good deed in a naughty world,” “Attention must be paid,” and “A handbag?” Twitter @msshakespeare Facebook: PoetsCornerPittsburgh LinkedIn
Categories: Archived Reviews