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Music review: Bach's 'St. John Passion' by Musica Angelica*

March 28, 2010 | 12:06 pm

It’s not often that you get to hear live performances of both of J.S. Bach’s surviving Passions in one season, let alone a single month.

Haselbock The Los Angeles Master Chorale offered the St. Matthew Passion about three weeks ago at Walt Disney Concert Hall, with the period-performance group Musica Angelica providing the instrumental forces.  Over the weekend, Musica Angelica took several cracks at the "St. John Passion" on its own -- first at Cerritos Center on Friday night, then at Pasadena’s First United Methodist Church on Saturday night. A final concert is set for 4 p.m. Sunday at Santa Monica’s First United Methodist Church.

For the "St. John Passion" -- as heard in the Pasadena performance -- Musica Angelica reverted to what was billed as “the spirit of Bach’s original conception” in having the solo singers double as the chorus. This reopens the debate about so-called original intentions, whether we should make do with what Bach had at hand in his time or whether we should take a leap of imagination and aim for what Bach might have really wanted in his heart of hearts had the resources been available to him.  There is no way to know the latter, of course, but the great power of this music itself is the best evidence for bigger, more imposing and, yes, modern forces.

In any case, by doing "St. John" this way, it was supposed to gain intimacy, perhaps like storytelling for a small local congregation – and this approach definitely had its payoffs, particularly in the plaintive homophonic chorales.  Musica Angelica music director Martin Haselböck kept the tempos up and running; the piece clocked in at a decidedly fast but not rushed 104 minutes.

But there were several passages that simply did not come off with the impact that one could imagine, like the two mighty chorales that formed massive bookends to the piece or the vividly descriptive downward scale and tremolos for organ and continuo depicting the shaking of the earth as the graves opened (one looked longingly at the Pasadena church’s pipe organ – which wasn’t used).  Also, it’s possible that the acoustics in this space were a problem. Wherever Bach employed his marvelously intricate instrumental polyphony, the period instruments sounded murky and smudged when you could hear them at all underneath the voices.  That worked against one of the goals of this kind of performance – paring things down so that you could hear what Bach wrote.

It was the voices – all of them of fine quality – that were the main assets of this performance, and their individual lines in the choral sections, at least, could be heard with some clarity.   Lyric tenor Tilman Lichdi was the strong, clearly projecting Evangelist; baritone Michael Dean, a compassionate Jesus; and baritone Scott Graff, a sonorous Pilatus. Catherine Webster unveiled a lovely, trilling, distinctive lyric soprano in her solo in Part 1 while the creamier-voiced Mary Wilson took the other soprano solo in Part 2, and  Ian Howell’s countertenor was agile and sweet in timbre.

-- Richard S. Ginell

Music Angelica, First United Methodist Church, 1008 11th St., Santa Monica, 4 p.m. Sunday, $49-$55, (310) 458-4504.

*Updated: In an earlier version of this review tremolos was misspelled.

Photo: Martin Haselböck in 2008. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times

Comments () | Archives (6)

i think it's tremolos, not tremelos.
as far as vocal music goes, i prefer handel to j.s. bach.

Wonderful post man.
Thanks very much for this extremely informative article.
I think all of them of fine quality.

Really impressed with the Musica Angelica St. John Passion performance at Cerritos.

Intimate performance, with well articulated German by the vocalist (especially by Tilman Lichdi). No need for translated super-titles for me when the German singing is so clearly presented.

Herr Haselbock kept good balance between the voices and instruments. Agree with the reviewer that tempos were lively yet well framed for both vocals and instrument passages.

Wish I had taken in the St. Matthew Passion as well (I can see why M.A.'s St. Matthew made Mark Swed's list of the best Classical Performances of 2009).

Maybe both productions can be repeated in the not too distant future?

Well done; Musica Angelica.

I attended the Sunday performance of St. John's Passion at Santa Monica United Methodist Church and was awe-struck at the dramatic reading by Musica Angelica. The artistry of this orchestra continues to grow from strength to strength. Perhaps it was a difference in acoustics, but I found the brilliance and clarity of sound uncompromised in the Sunday performance, and in perfect balance with the singers. Had Mr. Ginell's wish for the addition of the organ been granted, he may not have enjoyed the outcome, since there is a disparity in tuned pitch between that instrument and the early instruments which performed the piece.

"This reopens the debate about so-called original intentions, whether we should make do with what Bach had at hand in his time or whether we should take a leap of imagination and aim for what Bach might have really wanted in his heart of hearts had the resources been available to him."

The only person "reopening" this so-called "debate" about whether or not to employ a baroque orchestra to perform baroque repertory appears to be a strangely (if at all) informed Mr. Ginell. Pardon me, but that is *so* 1980.

And if you really want to discuss whether one should "take a leap of imagination," why not include electronics, amplification, and a DJ booth if you wonder what Bach really could've done in 2010? With a little Auto-Tune, Lady Gaga could play Jesus and Justin Bieber the Evangelist, right? Or vice-versa; I mean it's 2010, so anything's game as Mr. Ginell points out. Why, indeed, "make do" with a simple, gut-stringed orchestra and small lineup of singers? Let's get the YouTube orchestra to do Bach with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Maybe in Bach's "heart of hearts" this would have pleased him beyond words.

"Also, it’s possible that the acoustics in this space were a problem." This may have played a much larger role in ruffling Mr. Ginell's modern feathers than he realizes, though it's encouraging to see that he does acknowledge, albeit barely, the limitations of a modern church space that does in fact significantly distort the balance between orchestra and voices depending on where the audience sits. This problem could have been diminished somewhat by having responsible parties close off the peripheral seats beforehand, thus corralling the audience more towards the sweet spot amongst the pews -- nevertheless, it should hardly cause a rational music reviewer to write off baroque performance of baroque music in one broad, ignorant sweep.

Mr. Ginell obviously came into this baroque concert with a strongly anti-baroque predisposition. It's absolutely great that people form and hold their own opinions on musical interpretation -- it'd be absurd to assert anything else -- but the decision to send someone who refuses to accept anything other than "bigger, more imposing and, yes, modern forces" to perform Bach, someone primed and ready to seize upon the slightest vulnerability in a live concert to use as justification for his pre-formed thesis, is like sending a vegan to review the food at a steakhouse.

In his criticism of the performance the writer here conflates two separate issues: the size of the forces and the choice of instruments. A larger orchestra seems to be his main wish since he feels that even the eight voice chorus overbalanced the instruments, and whether Bach would have used larger forces had they been available to him is a valid though highly speculative point. We tend to feel that it's unlikely that Bach would have written years' worth of sacred music that he felt was inadequately performed, and that the standards he brought to his own keyboard performances extended to his cantata performances. In other words, he probably didn't leave each Sunday service crestfallen and comforting himself with the thought of more adequate renderings in the distant future only to repeat the frustrating exercise the following week. The issue of the instruments themselves makes less sense to me. Last week while coaching the stellar young orchestral players of the New World Symphony I was again struck by the fact that their "modern" (in fact late 19th century) oboes are not any louder than the baroque oboe I play. In fact they can have a smaller dynamic range. The main difference is due to the size of the group not their instruments. If volume is the issue perhaps we should consider truly modern instruments. What would Bach have done if he had access to electric guitars, synthesizers, and amplifiers? Or think of the wonders Michelangelo might have created with computers and power tools...


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