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The performance of J.S. Bach’s St. John Passion at Duke Chapel reminded all present that the best efforts of gifted singers, instrumentalists and a superb conductor are no guarantees of unsullied musical excellence. The combined chamber choirs of the Choral Society of Durham and the Duke University Chorale, a fine orchestra, principal soloists James Doing, tenor; Don Milholin, bass; Kristen Blackman, soprano; Mary Gayle Greene, alto; Wade Henderson, tenor; and several supporting soloists, all under the direction of Rodney Wynkoop, offered a concert which had its moments of breathtaking beauty but also had some very basic flaws.
The performers whose afternoon’s work deserved at once the most praise as well as the most criticism are the members of the choirs. Their contributions to the Passion are the most lengthy and difficult of all the music in this work. Because of the choirs’ prominence, the audience is very aware of the strengths and weaknesses of their singing from beginning to end of the performance
Certainly there were a number of occasions when the choral singing deserved high praise. The points of greatest choral beauty came most frequently in the chorales, which included some of the most expressive music in the Passion. Particularly, this is true of the great closing chorale, which in words and music summarized powerfully the profound meaning of the events of Christ’s sacrifice: that all humankind may overcome sin and death and one day will arise from the grave to see face to face the one who has saved them.
The choirs also did very well in their dramatic capacity as the angry crowd before whom Christ is tried and sentenced to death. In all their dialogue with Pilate and Jesus they were sufficiently responsive to what was said, never slowing down the forward motion of the scene. Their dramatic intensity increased as the action moved inevitably to its conclusion, when they portray the crowd’s rage, screaming ”Away with him! Crucify him!” This kind of dramatic singing is difficult for choruses to do, but under Wynkoop’s meticulous conducting they succeeded admirably.
Much of the choral performance in the Passion, however, was of a quality far below what the audience might have expected. The biggest problem the choirs had was their inability to achieve the vocal brilliance characteristic of Baroque musical style and to articulate clearly the phrases in the long, occasionally florid lines, some of which moved very rapidly requiring sustained breath support and vocal focus. The singers' efforts in the first chorus revealed clearly what can happen when support and articulation are lacking: the choral sound was vague; rapidly-moving notes and phrases were indistinct and, at worst, mushy; and vocal projection was not always present. Moreover, in later choruses the same lack of brilliance and clarity appeared repeatedly.
The soloists in the Passion did very well throughout the program. The most outstanding was tenor James Doing as the Evangelist, the narrator who has the most demanding of all the solo roles. The lines he must sing have a very high tessitura which never lets up, and that, coupled with many wide ascending intervals, makes his musical contribution to the Passion a difficult one. His last two narratives are exceedingly long and perhaps the most musically difficult of the work, but he managed to keep his vocal energy up throughout his performance so that his voice never seemed to tire. Wade Henderson, too, displayed a magnificent tenor voice, singing his arias brilliantly and, like Doing, managing to maintain a lovely vocal line despite the high tessitura. Don Milholin, bass, sang the role of Jesus with surpassing beauty and maintained his vocal energy throughout the performance. He and the two principal tenors must also be credited for their great vocal projection as they made themselves heard all afternoon despite the array of instrumental forces against them. The women, too, did well, but encountered some problems. In their arias soprano Kristen Blackman and alto Mary Gayle Greene revealed beautiful voices; however, both had plenty of trouble being heard over the orchestra.
The four supporting soloists gave creditable accounts of themselves. This is particularly true of bass Brent Blakesley who, in the role of Pilate, sang with authority some of Bach’s more difficult lines but occasionally encountered a few intervals which caused intonation problems. The other three soloists — Anthony Alberti, bass, as Peter; Kristina Warren, soprano, as the maid; and Chris LeGrand, tenor, as the servant — sang respectably, but, like Blackman and Greene, were often overshadowed by the orchestra.
In conclusion, many of the people who were present for this performance may agree with me that the quality of the production fell somewhat short of the great efforts of all the first-rate singers and players involved in it. They may also acknowledge that some of us may have expected far too much. It is well for reviewers to point out the admirable qualities and the weaknesses in this concert, but all of us must realize that our expectations for any performance of the work of a universally revered composer may be far too high to be achieved fully by the greatest of musicians.