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Bach's 'St. John Passion,' With Silvery Weight

Tuesday, March 15, 2005; Page C08

A challenge for conductors in Bach's "St. John Passion" is balancing its musical litheness with its tone of prayerful introspection. J. Reilly Lewis, who has honed the chorus and period-instrument orchestra of his Washington Bach Consort into a pure-toned ensemble of quicksilver responsiveness, knows how to breathe light and air into the score without losing a drop of tragic weight.

The Consort's reading of the "Passion," on Sunday at the National Presbyterian Church, unfolded with the drama of a good opera performance. Lewis's naturally expressive phrasing made vivid sense of the narrative, with speed springing from communicative urgency. And when he pulled down the chorus to a mere thread of sound, or let a pregnant silence hang in the air, those moments spoke volumes about key emotional transitions in the text.

Christine Brandes was a soloist with the Washington Bach Consort.

The sense of a drama being enacted carried over to the superlative team of soloists: soprano Christine Brandes (in gleaming, forthright voice for her two arias), countertenor Steven Rickarts, tenors Alan Bennett and Robert Petillo (a moving and supple-voiced Evangelist), baritone Christopheren Nomura (a dignified, gorgeously sung Jesus), and bass Curtis Streetman. The briefer parts, sung by Consort members, reminded us that this is a chorus made up of fine soloists. The orchestra played with the incisiveness and tight ensemble of chamber musicians, with the wind players (vital in the scoring, and cannily placed up front, to Lewis's right) sounding especially mellifluous.

-- Joe Banno

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