All Saint’s Church, Ashmont filled with glorious Baroque music Sunday while maintaining the intimate and solemn nature of Bach’s Passion According to Saint John. Four P.M. must be the ideal time for a performance of this work, as the stained-glass windows depicting the adoration of the Maji and the Risen Christ, vividly illuminated at intermission, became dark by the conclusion of the concert, mirroring the progress of the story. Throughout the second half, my wandering eyes often fell on the gilded Rood that stood over the orchestra and its image of a skull at the base of the cross.
The historicity of the arrangements would certainly have pleased historically informed performance advocates. The ensemble featured a well-picked choir of eight vocalists singing two-to-a-part for the choruses, augmented by the Boys of the Choir of All Saints in the chorales.
Of the titular roles, only the Evangelist came from outside of the choir. The soloist differentiated himself from the other singers by delivering his lines from the elevated pulpit overlooking the ensemble. The musicians in the chamber orchestra used Baroque instruments tuned to A=415. The continuo section contained two cellos (one doubling on viola da gamba), bass, bassoon, lute, and chamber organ. The small ensemble size let us observe how individuals responded to the score and the vocalists they accompanied, and the balance between singers and players never strayed.
The dynamic conductor Andrew Sheranian,guided the performance through casting, rehearsal, and concert. As one fellow attendee remarked to me after the conclusion: what he lacks in hair, he makes up for with artistic vision. Though several performers commented to me about the sparse rehearsal time, Andrew’s clear beat and cues ensured that the ensemble never felt uncertain or uneasy. He seemed to maintain effortless communication with every performer, and he rarely looked at his score. One can conduct like this only after having digested and internalized the music.
Andrew Bearden Brown filled his carefully balanced interpretation of the Evangelist with deep expression and gravitas. Like an excellent narrator, he maintained the fine line between emotionality and detachment in his many recitatives. His clear diction and pious body language underscored the scripture, not poetry, which he recited. His delivery of the line “Da nahm Pilatus Jesum und geisseite ihn” came across with particular force, and he produced an electrifying melisma on His body froze after the harsh cadence from the continuo section, and he did not soften his composure until the opening notes of the following arioso.
The rest of the ensemble shared in his severe demeanor and seriousness of dramatic and musical purpose. The singers displayed their sensitivity of ensemble and attention to text in such choruses as Herr, unser Herrscher and Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine, but their agility in the ‘interjection choruses’ impressed us. These short choruses interspersed around the recitatives are notoriously difficult for an ensemble to enter together, yet they managed them seamlessly. The sensitivity of the ensemble in the aria Eilt, ihr angefocht’nen Seelen sounded impressive. The 16th-note countermelodies in the strings seemed to float transparently around bass Daniel Fridley while he sang the words ‘Hurry to Golgotha.’ The chorus exclaimed “Wohin?” with clarity and precision while balancing well dynamically against him.
His second aria, Mein theurer Heiland, showcased the control of the singers and continuo section. The D major aria in 12/8 can feel flippant following Jesus’s death with its frequent trills; however, Daniel and cellist Andrew Koutroubas managed the passagework nimbly. Their articulation complimented each other well while their melismatic 16th-notes lightly graced the choir’s soft quotations of the hymn Jesu Leiden, Pein und Tod. Mezzo-soprano Julia Cavallaro and gambist Sarah Coffman were similarly concerted in the aria Es ist vollbracht, which features the tightest interweaving of solo voice and instrument in the piece. Their ornamentation achieved near-perfect synchrony with slight idiomatic inflections distinguishing the two.
The arioso Betrachte, meine Seel’ and aria Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken transfixed the audience with muted violins (substituting for viola d’amores), viola da gamba, and lute. Olav Chris Henriksen’s even-tempered arpeggios on lute mirrored bass Ulysses Thomas’s tranquil delivery of the arioso, his phrasing emphasizing the dissonance of the aria. This dovetailed well into tenor Marcio de Oliveira emphatic presentation of the aria. These singers and instrumentalists performed this pair of songs with superb timbre and tone.
The woodwindss provided a great deal of color and texture. In the choruses, their tone blended well with the strings and voices to create a warm texture. In arias, they contributed as deeply as any vocalist. The oboes and bassoon formed a marvelous trio in the aria Von den Stricken meiner Sünden which balanced like an organ. Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Eschen Cacciola managed the treacherously angular vocal part with ease around the cloud of double reeds. In the aria Ich folge dir gleichfalls, the unison flutes matched soprano Janet Stone’s sparkling voice while playing against the bouncy off-beat eighth notes from the basso continuo group. The flutes and oboes combined with sublimity in the aria Zerfliesse, meine Herze with the undulating bassline produced by the cellos and bass. Soprano Elise Groves highly melismatic vocal line sat serenely on this texture. This aria, more than any other, felt as though it would never end, and the audience did not want it to.
The presence of anti-Semitism in Bach’s text is never an easy subject to approach (especially in a Passion), and Elise Groves’s essay and well-crafted translation of the text acknowledge its realities within Bach’s genius. The program notes frame anti-Semitism as a question of who is the villain of the story. Groves cited chorales that tell the audience to consider their own sins as showing how we should hold ourselves responsible for Jesus’s death. While it’s unclear if any of the sung German text had been altered, the English translation in the program replaced most references to the Jews with the word “mob” in square brackets, which perhaps unintentionally attributes a ‘mob mentality’ to several characters in the narrative. This presentation is not dissimilar from the average disclaimer given at any mildly progressive Church in the area during Holy Week. She ended her notes by questioning why we seek to divide characters into an ‘us verses them’ dichotomy instead of empathizing with everyone in the narrative.