Thursday, July 3, 2014

Oregon Bach Fest's sumptuous St Mark Passion fills the sanctuary at Trinity Episcopal

Tenor Nicholas Phan
The Oregon Bach Festival continued its series of Portland concerts with a performance of J.S. Bach's St. Mark Passion at the Trinity Episcopal Cathedral on an extremely warm July 2nd evening. Bach's St. Mark, unlike the St. John and St. Matthew passions, it is a parody--basically recycling earlier works--and has largely been reconstructed from the libretto by Picander and other notations. Though there are a number of reconstructions in the repertory, OBF's new director Matthew Halls did the necessary reconstructions for this performance in collaboration with organist Dominik Sackmann.

From the outset, from the very first notes of the opening chorus sung from deep in the recesses of the altar, it was clear that an incredible performance was at hand. The glorious unanimity and sensitivity displayed by the Berwick Chorus of the OBF never let up throughout the performance; the pathetic qualities of this group were immediately obvious, and with Geh, Jesu--the remark that Jesus goes to his own sacrifice--the choir was unhurried, displaying masterful dynamic and emotive control, reveling in its own sound but in the most unpretentious manner possible... it was all for the sake of the music, and that quality did not change through the entire evening. The many opportunities for them to shine in this chorale-heavy work were never wasted.

Hall's direction was florid and expressive, almost exaggerated but it's difficult to argue with such results. Presenting a Passion requires shepherding the various parts into a seamless whole--it seems the presentation of a Passion is as much about the story as anything else, so the music must both supply the impetus for and yet not stand in the way of the tale, and Hall was superb in this respect.

The incredibly demanding roles of the Evangelist and Jesus, sung by Tyler Duncan and Nicholas Phan respectively, were well-filled. In particular, the challenge of keeping the recitative fresh and interesting for hours on end was admirably handled by Phan. He was intense and provocative in his role, never letting the sometimes dry score affect the delivery. Duncan's magnificent baritone, underneath the ever-present halo of strings and organ, was dark and redolent with the sense of a fate already decided--perfectly suited to the main role.

Alto Reginald Mobley delivered the most beautiful and stirring aria of the evening with Mein Heiland, dich vergess' ich nicht (My Savior, I will not forget you.) The whole aria was marvelous, but his ability to shape one  lungo possibile  note into an entire phrase, to shift that one incredibly pure tone in both dynamic and timbral spaces and then finish with the most delicate flourish of controlled vibrato--that alone would have made the experience worthwhile.

The chorus displayed a new character with the turba choruses. Abandoning the tenderness of the chorales, they foamed and fumed, bringing to the crowds a character all their own. The adroitness and in-depth period knowledge with which all performers, singers and instrumentalists alike, presented this work is just another reminder of how glad early-music audiences in Portland should be that the Oregon Bach Festival has been reinvesting themselves in Portland over the past few years.

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