Astoria Music Festival’s St. John Passion: Dramatic effect

Performance of J.S. Bach’s choral-orchestral masterpiece takes an opera-worthy approach.


If you haven’t been to Astoria in while, you’ve missed some things. No, not the Goonies, but the changes all over the city and environs. Boutique hotels and vintage kitsch, fabulous restaurants and a riverwalk. And then there is passionate music.

Star-studded with nationally and internationally known singers and instrumentalists, the Astoria Music Festival has grown from its founding in 2003, with just a single work (The Marriage of Figaro) featuring university students, to this year’s cornucopia of diverse offerings over a period of 17 days. The total cast includes Northwest singers such as Amy Hansen, Richard Zeller and Angela Meade, and players Sarah Kwak (concertmaster of the Oregon Symphony Orchestra), organist Henry Lebedinsky, and stellar lutenist Hideki Yamaya.

Keith Clark led the Astoria Music Festival's performance of Bach's St. John Passion. Photo: Dwight Caswell.

Keith Clark led the Astoria Music Festival’s performance of Bach’s St. John Passion. Photo: Dwight Caswell.

Last Saturday night featured the first choral work of the Festival: J.S. Bach’s Johannes Passion (St. John Passion). Keith Clark, co-founder and artistic director of the Festival, staged the sacred offering for full dramatic effect and the overall effect was stirring.

This is one of Bach’s greatest “operas.” That is to say, the four Passions of Christ (only two of the four are left to us: St. John and St. Matthew) were written to use all the tools of an opera (aria, recitative, arioso, chorus) to portray the drama in the Passion story. They’re called Passions, because that genre is specifically from one of the synoptic gospels narrating the “Passion week,” leading to the crucifixion of Jesus. They are as dramatic as any opera.

The first piece of the concert “Herr, unser herchet” (”Lord, Thou our master”) finds the disciples milling around in awe of their Master Jesus, wondering aloud what’s coming next. Because of its relatively heavy scoring and busy sixteenth notes, this piece can be ponderous and muddy, particularly when all the bass instruments are playing (two celli, bass, and bassoon). Articulations could have been cleaner, and the orchestra softer, when playing for the twelve-member chorus, whose voices and diction they sometimes obscured, although subtitles were provided. In a different way, the final piece, “Ruht Wohl” (“Rest well”), was lugubrious and broken up. There was often a pause, almost a fourth beat, in the ¾ meter, rendering a rubato, more romantic feel to Bach. 

Because the chorus has three dramatic parts to play – a rabid crowd member, a devoted disciple, or a worshiping congregant singing a reflective chorale – singers must be totally engaged. At the beginning of the performance, they were not. This all took a positive turn with the entrance of the evangelist and some thinning of the orchestral scoring in subsequent movements. It might also be the age-old effect of “tuning (adjusting to) the hall” once it is filled with bodies (audience). In any event, the forward motion kicked in.

The short first section of the St. John Passion spends little time on the hours Christ passed with the disciples prior to the being arrested. The drama moves swiftly through the garden betrayal by Judas, the submission by Christ, the arrest and a lengthy denial by Peter. First-time Passion-goers then adjourn to the lobby to comment on how short this night would be. Nicht!

There were many star turns, as there must be in Bach’s Passions, so studded with arias and recitatives. Foremost was Oliver Mercer, who brought gravitas coupled with a clear lyricism, perfect for the long and challenging role of the Evangelist, who keeps things moving through the entire drama. Mercer used all his vocal gears, plus overdrive, to propel the drama forward. Especially moving was the scourging arioso, where, in his Baroque musical language, Bach scores the closest thing possible to whipping sounds with a rapid fire passage for tenor and continuo forces.

Oliver Mercer (Evangelist) and Erica Brookhyser in Astoria's St. John Passion. Photo Dwight Caswell.

Oliver Mercer (Evangelist) and Erica Brookhyser in Astoria’s St. John Passion. Photo Dwight Caswell.

Mercer, a graduate of Portland’s Cleveland High School, began his vocal career in the Portland State University studio of Festival co-founder Ruth Dobson. Bravo to both.

Richard Zeller, as Jesus, was equally compelling. The veteran bass-baritone used every vocal inflection to bring to bear the passions of Christ, moving from the outrage in “Put your sword in its scabbard…” to the destitute “I thirst,” which Christ sings from the cross.

In addition to the Evangelist and Jesus, two essential characters helped carry the drama from the first part through the second. In this uncut version, Peter was sung by David Stutz, and Pilate by Tim O’Brien. O’Brien brought a rich, dark palette to the role, but could well have imparted a better dramatic sense of this character by looking up from his score more often.

The second half begins with a chorale, marked by Bach, “Nach der Predigt” (“After the sermon”). Right after the chorale, Bach really swings into action, and crowd choruses (turbae) become more frenzied, with a corresponding uptick in the pacing. Clark captured this beautifully. The chorus took charge of the action, and walloped Christ with their accusations of “evildoer” and “malefactor.” Here’s where Clark and the choir put on the afterburner. Choir and orchestra lit a fire under the texts, with each new utterance of the crowd making a dramatic crescendo over several movements.

Most musicologists agree that the chorale, “Durch dein Gefangnis, Gottes Sohn” (“Our freedom, Son of God”) is the spiritual crux of the St. John Passion, and Clark treated it as such with a deferential and prayerful reading.

Maestro Clark displayed a mantle of respect and humility not always seen on the podium. He dropped his arms during some of the small ensembles, giving over creative expression solely to the musicians. Much of this was possible due to the outstanding work of positive organ player Henry Lebedinsky, who was the sine qua non of the performance, ably assisted by MacAdam-Somer on cello.

Throughout the Passion, the action pauses to allow a singular pietistic or contemplative aria or arioso (a form falling between aria and recitative) sung by a Christian observer. Typical of this is the gorgeous baritone area, “Betrachte meine Seel” (“Think on this O my Soul”), a slow, harmonically colorful reflection by the singer, accompanied by lute, positive organ and two violas d’amore.

It is followed immediately, and in the same instrumentation, by the famous “Erwege” (“Behold, then”), notorious, at least among tenors, because it is without doubt one of the most beastly arias ever written by Bach. The vast terrain with long, chromatic lines was negotiated beautifully by Les Green. The conductor and singer wisely chose here not to use the da capo, where the singer is obligated to repeat the entire first section. Bach must have had a tenor with vocal chords of platinum.

The orchestra, professionals from around the West Coast for the most part, was first rate. The small ensemble pieces were for the most part sensitive and balanced beautifully, especially in the second half. The very difficult aria for baritone Nicolai Strommer with orchestra and chorus “Eilt angefochtnen Seelen” (“Run Away ye Souls”) was on the edge of itself running away. The next question from the mouths of the chorus — “Run where?” — is answered in the most poignant manner. Silence.

Soprano Amy Hansen, a regular of the Festival, was striking in her final aria: “Zerfliesse meine Herze” (“Release oh my spirit”), with flute and oboe (originally oboe da caccia) in a magnificent set piece for soprano, mourning the death of her Savior. Hansen did complete justice to the piece, singing with convincing phrasing and control. Her first aria, “Ich folge dich” (“I follow thee”), was more constrained, and begged to move forward in one beat to the bar.  “It’s a dance,” said the great Austrian conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, iconic champion of historical authenticity in tempi and dynamics, among other things. He was referring to the idea that nearly all Baroque music emanates from dance forms.

The mezzo-soprano Erica Brookhyser showed her mettle most significantly in her final aria, “Es ist vollbracht” (“It Is Fulfilled”), a stunning duet with the viola da gamba, played expertly by Adaiha MacAdam-Somer. Brookhyser was a honeyed and mellifluous singer here. In the first half, she was inconvenienced acoustically by having to sing upstage and 20 feet stage right of the exquisitely played two oboes.

Further to this point, the stage set and placement of the chorus was a puzzlement. The choral presence was compromised by upstage placement and breaking up the soprano-alto-tenor-bass sections into three rows of four singers each. And the middle grouping was under the proscenium! Arrangements like this almost always result in the choral sound being lost or muffled.

And now a personal note to the chorus. Please do not feel slighted that every member of the orchestra was named in the program and you were not. Feel proud singing under the name of Ensemble of Oregon, conducted by Patrick McDonough. Know that you are no less skilled or professional than any other performer on stage for this wonderful performance.

Good job to all. Astoria is very lucky to have you. Dr. Clark and the Festival are to be commended for this performance and for many days of artistic excellence.

Portland choral conductor Bruce Browne led the Portland Symphonic Choir and choral programs at Portland State University for many years. He has conducted or performed in Bach’s St. John Passion ten times.

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