Performers bring light to dark Passion at Vancouver Bach Festival

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      By Johann Sebastian Bach. With the Pacific Baroque Orchestra, the Vancouver Cantata Singers, and Gli Angeli Genève. A Vancouver Bach Festival presentation. At the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Friday, August 11. No remaining performances

      The world is too much with us when it creeps into the concert hall—as was the case, for this listener at least, on the closing night of the Vancouver Bach Festival.

      We generally think of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music as an escape from the everyday, a chance to exist for a while in a world of the mathematical and the divine. But that pertains to the great German’s instrumental music, and while his mastery of melody and counterpoint carries over into his text-driven, liturgical offerings, these can at times pose difficulties for contemporary sensibilities.

      On Friday, it took less than a minute before I knew I was going to be troubled. Not by any deficiencies in the performance—which was sublime, and we’ll get to that—but by Bach’s intent in writing the St. John Passion, which surveys Jesus Christ’s last day on earth. The fervent darkness of its instrumental prologue sounded less like music that glorifies God than the soundtrack for an 18th-century pogrom—or a torchlit march by white supremacists who’d kill to have a modern-day pogrom of their own.

      This intuitive response was underlined by the sung text that followed, in which Bach kowtows to authority by making the Roman governor Pontius Pilate a sympathetic character, while laying blame for Christ’s martyrdom on Jerusalem’s Jewish population. Which Jews? All Jews, and therein lies the problem. Christ, assuming he did in fact exist, was betrayed by the moneylenders outraged by his protosocialism, not by the Jewish craftsmen and street women who were his flock. To his credit, Bach hints at this in his text: the crowd baying for Christ’s blood is made up of servants, doing the bidding of their rich masters. But the more general libel has stuck, and we know the consequences.

      Searching for loopholes, one might point to the choral passage, “Wäre dieser nicht ein Übeltäter”, that comes early in the Passion’s second half. Here, the aforementioned crowd rises to peaks of gibbering madness; it’s one of the most terrifying moments in the Bach canon, and one could well imagine that the composer was warning against mob rule. But it doesn’t entirely dispel the feeling that this oratorio is an ugly piece of work—a sensation only slightly undercut by extraordinary performances from almost everyone on-stage.

      Much credit must go to the Pacific Baroque Orchestra’s music director Alexander Weimann, who conducted band, choir, and soloists with dancing intensity. One of the few sonic disappointments of the night was that the Chan Centre tends to swallow harpsichords, making it difficult to hear his no doubt equally impassioned contributions at the keyboard.

      Thomas Hobbs, as the Evangelist, made running this musical marathon look as easy as walking to the corner store for ice cream. Blessed with uncommon clarity and projection, he proved capable of consummate delicacy as well, especially when breaking the news of Christ’s death. His fellow singers from Gli Angeli Genève mostly kept up; Sumner Thompson was almost endearing in his relaxed portrait of Pilate, while Stephan MacLeod, as Christ, was musically impeccable but surprisingly short on charisma.

      The Vancouver Cantata Singers were magnificent whether they were being called upon to provide resplendent harmonies or bloodthirsty shrieking. And while it seems unfair to single out any members of the uniformly excellent Pacific Baroque Orchestra, flutists Janet See and Soilke Stratkauskas, along with Linda Melsted on viola d’amore, impressed in their brief duet and solo features.

      Does it make sense to say that while I don’t much care for the St. John Passion, I enjoyed this performance immensely? So it goes.