Seraphic Fire delivers an unforgettable St. John Passion

By Lawrence Budmen


"Christ of St John of the Cross" by Salvador Dali, 1951.

Among the monuments of the sacred music literature, few works are as heart-rending and soul-stirring as Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. John Passion. Seraphic Fire’s performance of this epic masterwork Friday night at All Saints Episcopal Church in Fort Lauderdale was a high-water mark for the stellar chamber choir and one of artistic director Patrick Dupre Quigley’s finest achievements.

Bach’s perfect balance of drama and spirituality mark this incandescent depiction of the trial, crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ. Despite the score’s tragic cast,  the St. John Passion is one of the most powerfully uplifting works in the repertoire. The depth and sensitivity of Quigley’s conducting combined operatic dramatic intensity with an impeccable sense of Baroque style. Deploying just thirteen voices, Quigley elicited choral singing of remarkable expressive beauty and finesse, backed by the superb playing of the Firebird Chamber Orchestra.

Following the gravely dissonant orchestral introduction, the powerful initial choral attack was like a cry from the heart. In the clear, wonderfully resonant acoustic of the sanctuary, the transparent lines and heavenly tones of the choir resounded with affecting urgency and grandeur. The opening chorale of Part II, Christus der uns selig macht (Christ who makes us blessed) became a moment of almost unbearable anguish, the vibrato-less beauty of the female voices both serene and intense.

In the pivotal role of the narrating Evangelist, Bryon Grohman’s finely nuanced lyric tenor and subtle word-painting conveyed the action without melodramatic exaggeration. Although the musical role of Jesus is less extensive than in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, Paul Max Tipton brought great dignity to his brief pronouncements in a baritone of rounded strength. The indispensable James Bass, the group’s choirmaster, gave tremendous vocal presence to Pilate’s recitatives, his bass-baritone always musically firm and secure.

Some of the score’s most ruminative moments are found in the arias, expansive commentaries on the drama. The remarkable strength of the vocal ensemble shone brilliantly as choir members took solo turns. Reginald Mobley’s pure, sweet countertenor underlined the pathos of Von den Stricken (My Saviour is bound). Accompanied by the exquisite flute obbligatos of Ebonee Thomas and Jessica Aura Taskov, Kathryn Mueller’s radiant soprano exuded lightness and grace in Ich folge dir gleichfalls (I follow you). The anger and agitation of Ach mein Sinn (O my reason) was forcefully conveyed by the powerful tenor of Brad Diamond.

In a warmly resonant baritone, Charles Wesley Evans skillfully traced the roulades of one of Bach’s most angular melodies with Mein teurer Heiland (My precious Saviour). The remarkable Bass displayed coloratura agility in the lowest register in an aria with choral interjections, one of Bach’s bold innovations.

Tenor Dann Coakwell’s superb declamation and agility and Misty Bermudez’s sizable soprano and passionate expressivity scored impressively in their solos. With felicitous flute, oboe and bassoon accompaniment, Nacole Palmer scaled the dramatic heights of Zerfliesse mein Herz (Melt, my heart), her low tones honeyed and deeply affecting.

The poignant melody of the final chorus was hauntingly realized, Quigley’s inspired leadership and the instrumental and vocal forces in full flower. This rare performance of the St. John Passion proved one of the most moving and unforgettable events of the music season.

Seraphic Fire repeats Bach’s St. John Passion 8 p.m. Saturday at Trinity Cathedral in Miami and 4 p.m. Sunday at All Saints Episcopal Church in Ft. Lauderdale. 305-285-9060;

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Sat Mar 19, 2011
at 11:50 am
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