Milestone performance for early music scene

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March 17, 2013

Victoria Baroque Players
J.S. Bach’s St. John Passion
Guest director Timothy Vernon
Church of St. John the Devine
March 12, 2013

Reviewed by Konstantin R. Bozhinov

Victoria’s period-instrument ensemble, under guest conductor Timothy Vernon, recently gave a unique and memorable performance of a baroque gem. Both the choir and orchestra were filled almost entirely with local talent: most of the musicians were professionals, but the minority of students could not be differentiated as to skill. I was lucky to get the last vacant seat in the church.

The ensemble was comprised of period instruments only, including the rarely heard oboe d’amore and oboe da caccia. The vocal soloists are just as important as the instrumentalists in such a performance. Leading them was Benjamin Butterfield, head of the vocal department at the University of Victoria, in the role of the Evangelist. His recitatives always provide the important joints between individual movements.

St. John’s Chamber Singers were well prepared and appropriately sized for the venue; the opening chorus presented a lot of contrapuntal detail, especially from the lower voices and the overall sound was in balance with the orchestra. The short, simple choral phrases that Bach wrote offer rare moments of reflection. I still wonder how this quality was retained when almost forty people came in together. The relatively dry but still resonant acoustics of the church, apart from providing clarity, made these moments intimate without diminishing them.

Bass soloist Nathan McDonald sang the role of Jesus with rich tone with no struggle for volume or textual clarity; he skillfully portrayed his part’s dramatic elements. Countertenor Mark Donelly, singing the first solo aria, filled every corner of the church with his clear and assured sound. This was not achieved with volume, but rather with projection and lack of hesitation. After a short recitative, this was contrasted by Emma Hannan’s soprano aria accompanied by two flutes, which produced unparalleled sweetness. It was unfortunate that this combination never came back in the entire performance. Perhaps this is why Bach only featured it once.

Kiiri Michelsen’s lyric voice enjoyed intimate dialogue with the viola da gamba during the “Es ist vollbracht!” section, appropriately intimate and delicately sung because it depicts the final moments of Jesus’s life.

I noted awkwardness in the placement of the pause between the two parts. Because it was asymmetrically about a third in, it made the second part too long in comparison. Overall, the conductor paid clear attention to minute dynamic contrasts to which the musicians unfailingly  responded. This was a milestone performance on the West coast early-music scene. The Victoria Baroque Players have established themselves as THE group on the island.

Konstantin R. Bozhinov is a Ph.D. student in historical musicology at UVic, as well as a professional performer on the lute and baroque guitar.

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