The Washington Bach Consort took a long intermission during its performance of the St. John Passion yesterday afternoon, and I took advantage of that break to walk out. The intermission was long enough for me to dash home and hear all of the second half as it was being heard across the United States--in a live, stereophonic FM broadcast. Even without the visual impact, I found the second half enormously more effective than the first.
The Washington Cathedral is one of the most impressive buildings in a city full of impressive buildings. Inside the massive gray stone walls, the eye can follow a line of high, graceful Gothic arches nearly a tenth of a mile long. The prevailing gray is broken up by colorful banners, tapestries, mosaics and a symphony of stained glass. It looks like a beautiful place to hear religious music, and it is if you don't insist on precision and fine detail.
During yesterday's celebration of the 297th birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach, the cathedral was packed full of humanity--a vast, polyglot throng, uncertain whether to assume the reverent air of worshippers and concertgoers, or the more informal attitude of tourists. At the end of the first half, they were uncertain whether to applaud, but when it was all over there was, quite properly, a standing ovation.
At its best, this was a magnificent performance. Conductor J. Reilly Lewis captured the mood and pace of the music with precision. His chorus and orchestra were the right size, and they performed expertly. The two leading solo roles were superbly filled by tenor Robert Petillo as the Evangelist and bass John Vroom as Jesus. On the radio, with very close microphone placement, the music sounded approximately as it would be heard by the conductor, and the balances were well calculated and effective.
On the whole, the quartet of solo vocalists did not seem completely at ease with the demands of a long da capo aria sung in the cathedral's awesome space--though the vast acoustics seemed kinder to tenor and bass voices than to soprano and mezzo. The singer who gained most through the microphone was probably mezzo Marianna Busching. In the first half, from a seat less than 50 feet away the aria "Von den Stricken" seemed to have good tone but hardly an intelligible word. In the second half, via the radio, her aria "Es ist vollbracht" was one of the climactic moments of the performance, a masterpiece of tone, phrasing, pathos and, above all, of verbal clarity.
Soprano Nancy Krohn Young also gained clarity when heard on the radio but, both in person and electronically, her voice, like those of several other soloists, seemed edgy. Among the other soloists, bass Harry Torno, as Pilate, gave a very promising performance, though he sounds like he needs further training before he will be ready for significant solos.
In sum, it was an impressive performance--particularly in the conductor's integration of a work that can be rather episodic. I'm happy I went to hear it at the cathedral but I'm even happier that I went home at intermission. That way, I heard as good a performance as was received by people in Cleveland.